The faceless demons


Everyone without a gun is a victim
in The Armies. Evelio Rosero
communicates the nature of
arbitrary and anonymous terror
in Colombia with chilling skill



The Armies
Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean
2008, Maclehose/Quercus
215 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

FOR TERROR to be a tool of social control, its application must be entirely arbitrary. Any predictability in its use will engender a natural adaptivity – the ability to plan ahead, avoidance strategies, even resistance – and hence limit its effectiveness.

In one of the more coherent contributions to a study of civil war in Latin America,* Daniel Pecaut examined the legacy of terror in Colombia – a society in recent memory synonymous with fear, albeit one that is now, mercifully, emerging from its nightmare.

His observations were illuminating, for they drew attention to the blurred boundaries between the guerrilla and paramilitary forces, many of whom had changed sides in the course of military careers in the rural hinterland.

Pecaut appeared to suggest that, in Colombia, distinctions between state and society had broken down to such an extent that the war was a conflict between loose, vengeful clans fired by personal loyalty. There was, by implication, little to choose between the sides.

This observation lies at the heart of The Armies, Evelio Rosero’s insightful and disturbing tour de force that won the 2006 Tusquets prize and is the author’s greatest achievement yet in a long writing career.

Anonymity of the combatants

The arbitrary nature of the terror visited by rival armies upon the remote town of San José in the Colombian mountains is communicated with great skill by Rosero through the anonymity of the combatants and their unpredictable appearances. These are faceless demons that swirl perpetually out there, beyond, then descend suddenly without warning to commit the most heinous atrocities – fostering a pervasive lack of confidence.

All the elements that readers familiar with other works by Rosero, such as En el lejero, will recognise are there. The pueblito is, of course, a microcosm of confinement that enhances the tension between a desire both for security yet also for escape. The protagonist, Ismael, is a frail retired teacher whose fragility and delicately erotic sensitivity are metaphors for the human condition and the abruptness of pain and death. The narrative is in the first person, enabling a subtle juxtaposition of the emotional suffering of the living aggrieved alongside the dehumanised, deathly frigidity of the perpetrators. The characters often have a symbolic and dreamlike quality open to much interpretation. Evil ultimately triumphs over good, an inversion of morality that draws attention to the deranged ethics of survival resulting from a descent into a state of nature.

Rosero’s ability to depict vulnerability and insanity is unrivalled, and his style favours precision over description. He has that rare gift that distinguishes great writers: an ability to peer into the human heart. The result is a well-grounded narrative form with a strong sense of direction that carries the reader on its shoulders almost effortlessly.

The Armies can tell us much about how violence in Colombia translates into a generalised fear and mistrust and, over time, engenders chaos, desolation – and the constant, all-pervasive fear that something even worse is on the way. In this book, everyone without a gun is a victim. It is, unquestionably, one of the most important Latin American novels of recent years, but its very publication and the interest it has provoked is more than that – forming part of a broader, painful but ultimately curative, process of recuperation that Colombian writers, including Héctor Abad Faciolince and Tomás González, are going through to cleanse their land of blood.

*Koonings, Kees, and Dirk Kruijt (eds). 1999. Societies of Fear: The Legacy of Civil War, Violence and Terror in Latin America. London: Zed Books

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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