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One of the great pleasures of going to the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association [ALTA] is the discovery of new writers not writing in English, often in their first translations into English. Besides talking to translators and some authors the conference always has a good book show, focused on translations.   Sometimes I pick up a book because I’ve heard the translator speak at the conference, sometimes because the author has been on my list and I chance across a title in a new translation, or old.  Once in a while I just go for an interesting title or [blush] cover art.  This year,  in Philadelphia,  I picked up The Armies, /Los Ejercitos [New Directions, 2009] by Evelio Rosario — a Colombian born in 1958.   The book flap was intriguing — people in a  small village caught from both sides in the seemingly endless Colombian wars.   I also  wanted to improve my knowledge of Colombian literature beyond the King, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It was a good move on my part.

I loved the opening sentence:  “And this is how it was: at the Brazilian’s house the macaws laughed all the time.”  We are brought in with immediacy, as though picking up a story in mid-telling — “And….”  We have a bit of mystery: why a Brazilian if we think we are in Colombia?  And a nice new image for the crawking of macaws.  I’ve heard them and never thought of laughing, but reading this I think, ‘of course!’  Next, we get a quick summary of his view from high up a ladder picking oranges, “this is how we grow old, she and I, the fish and the cats, but my wife and the fish, what were they telling me?  Nothing, there was no understanding them.”

Sex enters in the next paragraph.  Is this part of the DNA of Latin American novels?   “The Brazilian’s wife, the slender Geraldina, sought out the heat on her terrace, completely naked, lying face down on the red floral quilt.” Not only is is sex, it is voyeuristic sex.  How does he know she is naked?  He is up picking oranges, high on a ladder, daily, above the wall that divides the two houses.

He is getting old, he is a voyeur and, we are soon to see, war is invading every pore of his being, taking over his senses.

The first news of it  slips in so we are unaware.  A man, a husband, has been missing for 4 years.  His wife holds a memorial on the day he went missing, “and nobody knows whether God has  him in His glory, or his Gloria has him in hers — as the wagging tongues have begun to joke.”  Then several women are heard exclaiming over a baby found in the rubbish dump:

“Yes, they repeat: “They killed a newborn baby girl,” and crossed themselves.  “Chopped into pieces.  God help us.”  Still, we are not sure.  Perhaps we are just hearing the macabre stories of small town people with too much time on their hands.

Ismael, the old voyuer, keeps noticing the women, how they sway, how their skirts lift, how their knees shine.  He decides to take his own aching left knee up the mountain to a curandero.  It is there we really know what we are in for.

“There is no moon, the night is still pitch black; I cannot see a pace in front of me, although I know I am halfway there:  the Maestro’s cabin is at the back of the mountain, not at its summit, which today I would never reach, but rather skirting around halfway up.  I find a mound finally, and sit down there.  Above my knee the swelling has grown to the size of an orange.  I am drenched in sweat, as if caught in the rain; there is no wind, and nevertheless, I hear that something or someone is walking on and snapping the leaves and the underbrush.  I freeze.  … what if it is an attack? It could be that the guerrillas, or the paramilitaries, have decided to take the town tonight, why not?”

Over the course of the 200 page story we meet some of the townspeople, the seller of empanadas, the local Army Captain, the waitress at a beer place.  We meet Otilia, Ismael’s wife, as she berates him for his habits, his lust. We meet the priest and his maid/wife.  And gradually the fear grows.  Shooting is heard.  Uniformed men come and go.  One person dies, and then another.  The atmosphere is suffocating as people try to decide to stay, or leave, and if to leave, where?

Years ago before the attack on the church, displaced people from other towns used to pass through our town; we used to see them crossing the highway, indeterminable lines of men and children and women, silent crowds with neither bread nor destinations..

Can it be that I am going to die? he thinks.  More shots ring out, machine gun bursts this time… He stops at door of old woman he once slept with when they were young.   She warns him to go home.   He is arrested in the plaza by soldiers. Some are released, called by name.   His name is not among them.. he leaves anyway…

“…once again we are newsworthy;  the death toll goes up daily after the attack, among the ruins of the school and the hospital, more corpses appeared; Fanny, the caretaker with grenade shrapnel through her neck, and Sultana Garcia, Cristina’s mother, who was found riddled with bullets under a pile of bricks  ‘with the broom still in her hands,” people commented with bitterness.”

A well dressed, well washed newswoman comes by helicopter from the capitol, wanting a story and to get out before the heat kills her…

Slowly, unstoppably the pressure increases.  The Mayor leaves.  There are no police in the station when the bar owner goes to them with the index fingers of his kidnapped wife and baby daughter — from which army?  He has no idea, only that they want more money than he would see in ten life-times, for their return.

Ismael wanders like the living dead around the town.

“…it is very possible, really, that I am dead, I tell myself, good and dead in hell, and I laugh again.”

Everyone is leaving. Some call him to come, others ignore him.

They are leaving.  I am staying, is there really any difference?

Otilia has disappeared.  For all their separateness at the beginning her importance to him increases by the day.

“…men and women … look at me as if I have gone mad; what would you say Otilia?  How would you look at me?  Thinking of you only hurts, sad to admit, and especially lying on my back in bed, with out the living proximity of your body, your breathing, the imaginary words you spoke in your sleep.

And so he stays.  Are there no soldiers?

“It will not be long before they come back, that we know, and who will come back?  It does not matter, they will come back.”

And they do come back.  He is opening the door to his house, to sleep.  There is no more food.  “Freeze, or you’re dead!” they command.  What can it matter to him.  He is already dead.

The Armies is a very sober, and sobering book.  The tension is less that of a good thriller, lifting us up, secure in our comforts, than that of a weight.  While we are similary safe as we read, watching these poor and unarmed people exit the pages is not exhilarating.  There are no close calls and nervy daring-do.  What we read is all very real.  It is the inside reality of the news we know too well.

The language, in translation by Anne McLean, is modest as suits its theme.  No magic realism here.   A few times I cocked an eyebrow at some of the translation choices. The paragraph cite above –‘the cabin is at the back of the mountain,’ and more, seems odd.  We don’t say, in English something is ‘at the back of a mountain.’  In several paragraphs she speaks of  ‘Henchmen‘ — the unkown mauraders.   I don’t know what it was in Spanish, and I know making choices is difficult, but ‘henchmen?’  Some of the sentences might have been cleaned up.  Too many of them are filled with semi-colons, colons, run-on and incomplete sentences.  Spanish rules are much different then English for these episodic, non-formal phrases, and I’d have to see the original to make any comments.  It seemed to me there was room for quite a few more periods, however.

A few thematic issues surface during the course of the book, especially in the closing pages.  The transition from Ismael as a watcher of women to a watcher of death and disappearance is fairly seamless.  Though even late in the novel as the deep weight of the war is driving away almost everything else, he still admits to himself — with some shame– that his eyes are focused on round knees, or the swaying of a backside, even dressed in mourning.  Those appetites are falling off and heighten our sense of who dread and death displace life and the sexual urge.  I have to say, however, I remain puzzled by the closing paragraphs when his sexual voyeurism is literally a necrophiliac voyeurism. He thinks to himself that he knows how to do this; he should advise the culprits how to do it..  It is too startling an image to pass over, as simply shocking but I don’t find support in the rest of the novel for various interpretations that have occurred to me.

It is a story told in Colombia, but as well could be told of Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, tens of places around the world where unknowable armies cut swaths through villages less in an effort to bring stability and life than in the sheer orgiastic thrill of the kill.  We don’t meet those men here, except through shouted commands and the evidence of their passing — decapitations, fingers gone, corpses found in ditches.  We meet the victims.  We don’t know what to do on closing the book.  Except perhaps hold these memories of distant companions close to us and work to not let the call to division,  blood and final solutions take over our own national dialog.

Where we, as Americans, have an ugly role in setting warring peoples against each other, then we are double bound to read a story like this and understand the human consequence.