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Politics and power in Evelio Rosero’s THE ARMIES.

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The Armies

For the past 60 years Colombia’s social and political climate has been defined by violence. The root of Colombia’s three decade-long civil war can be traced back to the period known as “La Violencia,” which stemmed from the assassination of the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán and the seizure of government power by conservatives. As a result, numerous left wing and communist revolutionary groups formed throughout the country, notably the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). In turn, conservative paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) were created in response to these collectives. For these groups violence is the route to power. Both the leftist guerillas and conservative paramilitary groups have terrorized the populace through massacres, kidnappings, extortion, rape, robbery, assassination, disappearances, lootings and intimidation.

The Bojayá massacre of 2002 exemplifies this: In 2002, the AUC paramilitary group occupied the town of Bojayá in order to rid the area of FARC guerillas and to gain possession of the coca plantations surrounding the town. Despite protests from the local inhabitants that the presence of the paramilitary groups would only bring suffering to the town, the AUC remained. Then, on May 2nd 2002, FARC began shelling the town with primitive mortars, indiscriminately killing both civilians and AUC members. 119 citizens were killed and 98 were seriously wounded. In the wake of the atrocities, it became evident that the people of Bojayá were viewed as expendable by all combatants. The AUC reportedly used civilians as human shields, to have looted the town and confiscated goods, vehicles, and equipment from the denizens of Bojayá. Furthermore, the Colombian government failed to prevent the pillage, despite warnings from the UN of the brutality that would occur.

In The Armies, Rosero depicts this lack of concern for lives of the Colombian people. The armies playing out their gruesome war games are nameless, but are meant to evoke groups such as FARC, ELN and the AUC, who for many years have brutalized the Colombian people in the name of politics. Although Rosero elects to render anonymous the warring militias who wash through the town, murdering at will, the narrative trajectory of The Armies is fuelled by accounts of the very specifically named people of the fictional town of San José. From Chepe the restaurant owner whose pregnant wife is abducted, to the outsider figure of Hey, the empanada vendor who is eventually decapitated, no life in San José is left untouched by the book’s violent and destructive course. Rosero says of the specificity of victims and the facelessness of the killers: “Everything is reduced to death tolls without ever reporting on the causes, the offenders. Impunity is our daily bread. To tackle this aspect of the Colombian reality from a human perspective, to tackle the life of the citizen, the unarmed people stuck in the middle of crossfire, was a tremendous challenge, because I am a novelist and couldn’t take sides. I couldn’t let it fall into becoming a propaganda piece, so through writing I was able to use the literary art as a witness.” This refusal to “take sides” renders the novel all the more powerful as a depiction of humanity on the brink of destruction: the people are pawns in this game; husbands and wives are taken and used for ransom, innocent children are transformed into soldiers and murderers and the corpses of women are raped and defiled. No one in the novel escapes the grip of terror that the armies bring.

Furthermore, the reader cannot identify any recognizable incentive for the acts of either the insurgents or the paramilitaries, other than monetary gain and greed for power. The war seems in this way apolitical–the stated goals of the guerillas and paramilitaries are merely a front for their quest for power. Despite the political ambiguity of the book, figures of authority are lampooned heavily in The Armies, rendering the novel a tragicomedy of sorts. Nobody dodges Rosero’s ridicule, which acknowledges the position of those in the socio-political hierarchy and proceeds to underscore their foibles, both political and moral. The local priest is an adulterer, the chief of police a paranoid “nutter” and even the professor Ismael, our narrator, is a man tormented by lust in spite of the fact that he is incontinent and approaching decrepitude. We, like the villagers, only hear of the army general indirectly, as a man who uses helicopters to evacuate his livestock rather than aid the people. The guerillas are depicted as mocking children, and even the people of San José, caught in the chasm of violence, remain ignorant of the reasons behind their plight. In rendering his characters ignorant, Rosero has made it difficult to surmise whether or not this is satire in itself, a stereotype of rural life, in which peoples’ only concerns are the quotidian, the humdrum life of a small village.

However, it would appear that Rosero uses ignorance and anonymity in order to highlight the ruthless nature of this war, one in which sides are irrelevant and all noncombatants are victims. In his Colombia, the fictional town of San José is quite literally stuck in the middle of the greater power struggle occurring throughout the country. The villagers thus come to embody the suffering of the people of Colombia under these figures of power, and our hero Ismael, with his descent into decay and forgetfulness, becomes a metaphorical allusion to Colombian politics, a system plagued by violence and poverty, in which reason and certainty hold little meaning.
–Katie Raissian

Written by New Directions

September 10, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Lunch and books with Marie du Vaure

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A great privilege of working in publishing is dining with booksellers. I have yet to meet the bookseller who is not a first-rate conversationalist and a lover of good food. Over the course of a decade, I’ve had many memorable meals with booksellers where talk about books, current affairs, film, and travel flowed as easily as the wine. This past BEA, I lunched with Marie du Vaure, the head book buyer for Vromon’s, a large and well-known independent bookstore that has enriched the Southern California community for over a century with good books and events. While eating mussels with Marie, I was enchanted by both the width and depth of her book knowledge (the defining trait of the indy bookseller), and again realized how lucky I was to be sitting at a table and hearing about books, many of which I didn’t know but where Marie’s descriptions so struck me that I immediately wanted to run out to a bookstore and hunt them down.

In thinking about that wonderful lunch, I wished most of all to share some essence of that conversation with our readers, and so contacted Marie about book recommendations to post on our blog. She graciously accepted and the following post by Marie details the books she is currently reading in such a thoughtful and vivacious manner that I feel I am still at lunch with her:

“As a book buyer, I find myself reading mostly advance reader’s copies for the upcoming season. It is the nature of the job, and I have no complaints about that. I do however bemoan at how quickly I can be lured away from a current book to pick up a future publication. We depend so much on these early reading impressions to make hopefully better decisions on acquisitions. But once in awhile, it is grounding to be in the now of books, of current publications, of literature in the present. A lot of titles have been forgotten or went hazy from the time they were first looked upon in a publisher’s catalog. So it is reassuring, and pleasant actually, to be reminded at times of the surprise of stumbling upon an interesting book that has been out. Especially if it is something I should have remembered, a title that should have had my interest. How did I not notice it, what happened that I did not make a note to myself? The dual emotion of my realizing about my imperfect memory and my genuine excitement of discovery is both humbling and galvanizing. Such is how I felt when someone pointed out this short ‘entertainment’ on life after death called SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, written by David Eagleman, and published by Pantheon.

sum “The book was actually published back in February. I thought it ironically fitting that here I was, drawn to choosing what my job, which always looks ahead, would qualify as an ‘already’ book (already out), and that this said book dealt with the notions of what ultimately is even beyond looking ahead, basically the afterlife! This short book was a true delight to read, wholly unpredictable in its imagination and subversively funny. It comprises of forty vignettes describing possible scenarios of life after death. The author, a young neuroscientist, proves himself to be very ingenious and impertinent in his takes, but all stories have a real weight to them in the fundamental question of what do we make of ourselves. These are true philosophical questions put to us in the most innocuous but effective way: the nature of immortality (it is a suffering that God intends to share with us); the notion of faith, in the story named `Oz’ (one of my favorites); the paradox of curiosity in the story titled `Descent of Species’ (you choose for your next life to see what it is like to be a horse but as you become one, you forget what it is to be human). The weight of memory is handled in many subtle variations. In `Metamorphosis,’ one cannot die completely until one’s name is spoken for the last time. So there is a waiting room in the afterlife where many of the not-completely-forgotten linger forever, such as historical figures and mere loved ones, constantly evoked, who hope that they might finally fade away from the memory of the living. I was very much seduced by the format and enjoyed the wit that came with these stories. Eagleman’s unforgettable parables add up to a satisfying collection that I strongly recommend.

“Another book that was a delayed revelation to me was Robert Boswell’s latest collection of short stories titled The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, published by Graywolf Press. I had heard of Boswell, only good things, in reference to The Geography of Desire and Crooked Hearts. I however never got around reading him. Somehow late back in May, as I was checking the shelves, I came across his book. Not only is the title marvelous but the cover is priceless! I had to pick it up, and I can safely say that if I fell for the package, the content was well worth it too. Boswell’s style is unlike anything I have come across so far. heydayThere is a real manipulation of sounds, and meanings in and of the language. In the first story I read, `A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain’, I was caught quite off guard until I realized how the voice of the protagonist, who is a he and/or she, was a direct reflection of her/his hapless mind and synaptic confusion. This was such an uneasy yet wistful story, and the fact that I was thrown off-balance so surreptitiously rendered my curiosity for the other stories even more fervent. I was not disappointed. I read `Miss Famous’ (I chose the stories out of order, I tend to do that with collections, unless something says otherwise) and I found myself riveted by the very unspectacular life of Monica, a cleaning woman who desperately wants to be ‘special,’ mostly to try to get back a married boyfriend. Some of her clients have strange habits and Monica’s snooping reveals odd parts of their lives. She fiddles with the idea of writing about them, and becoming famous that way, and impressing her former boyfriend. But one knows that will never happen and the more she elaborates, the less she believes it. The pettiness of her life clashes with the quirkiness of her own clients’ lives. By hinting at the undisclosed existences of these other people, Boswell manages to have us absorbed by the secondary characters, yet allowing the central one to develop and to act as their intermediary to our fascination. ‘A Walk in Winter’ is another one that stayed with me for a long time. It’s a more straightforward story, about a young man returning to North Dakota in the middle of winter to identify his mother’s bones, although she disappeared in the wilderness when he was still a child. What unfolds is an unexpected truth that flips his world around. We find ourselves grateful for the local sheriff and his secretary who, no matter how clumsy they come across, do provide an emotional shelter to this young man. Boswell has offered us a solid and variegated work peopled by imperfect individuals he portrays with genuine concern and respect. I have truly loved every story and I think this is a collection that every one should possess. I will confess also that I have been using the title as a little mantra of my own, when I need to keep things in perspective….. The-Hey-day-of-the-In-sen-sitive-Bas-tards. You should try it.

“Last but not least, published by New Directions itself, is The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. This is actually a book that is slated to come out in September. I was sent an advance copy some time ago and read it right away in just a couple of sittings. I have to say that my interest in South American literature has been revived from a long slumber thanks to the selection and translations of particular works by New Directions. They always offer very original work of powerful impact. So trusting their choice, I dove into The Armies. I was rewarded by a searing novel that reads like a long crescendo, starting with the hush of smiles and gossip and ending in a scream of violence. One is lulled into thinking that the emotions the story stirs can remain within manageable confines, but the ruthlessness of the conflict between different armed factions in a small town in Colombia overrides the safety of any self-assigned ideal. armies
Ismail and his wife Otilia live a quiet retired life. Ismail spies on the beautiful wife of his neighbor and Otilia keeps busy with the community of San Jose and the upcoming yearly visit to her friend Geraldina, whose husband disappeared four years ago. Ismail decides to skip the yearly event and somehow from that point on, his world slowly disintegrates. Otilia herself disappears, military forces come and go, guerrillas and drug traffickers ruin the town, and killings and executions happen. Random kidnappings, random releases, lives obliterated, and time starts to contract and extend simultaneously. Ismail becomes a walking dead, never leaving San Jose, wandering the hills and slipping through the armies’ lines. His perception of things becomes surreal as he witnesses sorrow, anguish and shocking death, and he starts losing grip on his world. As a ghost of himself and a specter of a former life, he is the single witness to the destruction of all that stood for the sweetness of ordinary existence. Rosero wrote a disturbing yet necessary novel, intimating the terrible dislocation of people thrust into the heart of darkness. He sends the reader right into this madness, as a victim of it through his style and narration rather than as a spectator. There is no going back once you have stepped into the turmoil.

“So these are the three books that have permeated my last few weeks. I feel more enriched as a reader now that I know them.”

While I know that many readers avail themselves of booksellers’ expertise for new discoveries, I admit that I never talked much with booksellers until I started working in the industry. I was one of those silent persons roaming the aisles, never realizing that there’s so much wealth of information, thoughtful knowledge, and often strong literary opinions (and quite enjoyably so) in bookstores. Talking with booksellers has opened my reading habits, making me both a more diverse yet discriminating reader that allows me to get the most of my reading hours. If you have not yet talked with your local bookseller, you have a wonderful new experience awaiting you.

— Soo Jin

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