Where rats go to die

The Colombian writer Evelio Rosero has constructed an eerie netherwold inhabited by those who have been kidnapped or who have disappeared


En el lejero
Evelio Rosero
2007, Norma
118 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

THE DRAMATIC release in July of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by leftwing FARC guerrillas catapulted the issue of political kidnapping in Colombia to world attention.

Had Ms Betancourt not been a French-Colombian citizen seized while campaigning for the presidency and the subject of high-profile interventions by France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, her fate may have been more like that of the 60 or so remaining hostages held by the Colombian guerrillas in their long conflict with the country’s US-backed army.

But it is the six-year duration of Ms Betancourt’s captivity – and that of many others who have been held, in some cases, for far longer – that calls to mind En el lejero (In the Abysmal Distance), the preamble to a more recent work by Evelio Rosero, Los ejércitos, that won the author international acclaim by gaining the prestigious 2006 Tusquets Prize. En el lejero, like its successor, is set in an imaginary Colombian town and deals, through a dreamlike and surreal narrative, with one aspect of the conflict that has plagued the country for a generation, kidnapping.

The power of this short novel resides in the richly atmospheric vernacular in which is written. A 70-year old, who chooses to identify himself as Jeremías Andrade, has been travelling from village to village for a year hunting for the only thing that established the border for him between remaining alive or finally dying: his nine-year-old granddaughter, Rosaura, who disappeared on the way to the shop to buy a bunch of roses. Both Rosaura’s father – Jeremías’ son – and her mother have been killed.

During his quest, Jeremías arrives at a nameless village, a sort of dump sunk in fog outside Hamelin where all the rats of the world go to die. No one dares to speak – except anonymously – but all are ready to accuse, no one is innocent, and all are filled with hatred and resentment but, more than anything, with fear. And from the start, Jeremías is robbed and scrutinised by amoral and deformed characters.

Jeremías is an outsider, has a purpose in life and still has the ability to feel. And although full of fear, he finds the courage to voice his concerns in order to seek clues as to the whereabouts of his grandaughter. It is no coincidence that the only other characters able to speak sense claim not to belong to the town. It has been said before that in Colombia a name is a resource that opens doors, and Jeremías is helped only after making his name public.

Reminiscent of Buñuel

The images in this story, reminiscent of Buñuel, are spectral and disturbing: a landlady who deals in, smells and eats raw chickens, disappointed with the fact that the traveller requests the cheapest room, sends him to one that seems more like a crypt or dungeon. A dwarf prostitute who can even hear Jeremías’ eyelids opening. A teenager that plays football with the head of a dead woman on streets paved with dead mice or swarming with chicks. Children prepared to blame the outsider for something he did not commit. A huge albino man – who makes a conscious decision to take the name of Bonifacio – warns Jeremías that if he needs a flame to light his cigarette in the village, he’ll be getting as much fire as he could want: the village is a kind of purgatory whose residents are all, without knowing it, under ransom, or dead inside, or forgotten.

Although the tone and descriptions of this chilling landscape provide a metaphor for Colombia and its siege mentality, violence, cruelty and numbness, the source of the nightmarish imagery is real events taken from newspaper and television reports and the accounts of displaced people from near Cali. The title, En el lejero, is one of a series of clues reminiscent of a child’s creepy puzzle.

The tale’s intensity and quirky twists of phrase convey the drama of a society sunk in collective madness, without hope, where war has generated filth and rot. And added to this tension are Rosero’s reflections upon finding a person who has disappeared: will she be the same person who was taken or will she now be someone else.

Beneath the apparent simplicity of the language, the author employs careful prose designed to fix the distinctive atmosphere in the reader’s memory so that, like the war itself, we do not simply close the book and resume daily life. Rosero’s focus on the detachment caused by the cruelty and confusion of war has clearly struck a chord with Colombian readers, and explains why he has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez.

His other works include Mateo solo (Mateo Alone, 1984), Juliana los mira (Juliana Stares at Them, 1986), El incendiado, (The Ignited, 1988), Señor que no conoce luna (Man who Does Not Know the Moon, 1992), Plutón (Pluto, 2000), Los almuerzos (The Lunches, 2001) , Las esquinas más largas (The Longest Corners, 1998).

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer