I love it when I read two books that seem to be speaking to each other. Badenheim 1939 dealt with a group of ordinary middle-class civilians who were forced to confront violence and death. Now we in North America can read The Armies (Los Ejércitos, 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2009; winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Award) (it was published in Great Britain earlier this year). As Badenheim 1939, in The Armies we watch as the residents of San José, a rural Colombian village, struggle to survive as their livelihoods are increasingly disturbed and ultimately destroyed by the senseless violence of battles that have nothing to do with them.
That is not to say that if you’ve read Badenheim 1939 you have already read The Armies. They are very different. The Armies, for one thing, is much more violent. Yet if violence disturbs you, you might be surprised at how compassionately, tenderly Rosero’s narrator recounts what he’s seeing.
We first meet Ismail Pasos, our seventy-year-old narrator, while he is up a ladder picking oranges, peering over the wall at Geraldina, the wife of his neighbor, Eusebio Almida. She is carelessly lying naked in the sunshine while macaws laugh nearby. Ismail’s wife, Otilia, is “further back.” In his old age Ismail has lost his ability to be discreet, and everyone knows why he spends his time peering over a wall. His wife thinks he’s pathetic, but says she cares more for her fish and cats. Eusebio and Geraldina think he’s harmless.
Ismail and Otilia are both retired school teachers. They are established in the community of San José, and though their daughter keeps imploring them to move away to live with her, they have no intention of leaving. At first this seems strange, given the frequent violence in the city brought on by “the guerrillas, the paramilitary, the army and the drug traffickers”:
The hundreds of hectares of coca planted around San José in the last few years, the “strategic location” of our town, as those in the know classify us in the newspapers, have made of this territory what the protagonists of the war also call “the corridor,” dominion over which they fight tooth and nail, and which causes the war to surface in everyone’s pores: this is what people talk about in the street, in furtive hours, and they talk in words and curses, laughter and laments, silence, invocations.
However, we soon learn that Ismail and Otilia are used to violence. They met in a train station. They were sitting there when a fat man in a white suit, sitting near them, was shot and killed by an eleven or twelve year old. When teaching school one of the students was “not yet twenty when he was killed, in the street, by a stray bullet, without anyone knowing who, where from, how.” Ismail and Otilia still visit one of their neighbors on the anniversary of the day her husband disappeared. And only two years ago, dynamite exploded in the church, killing fourteen and wounding and wounding sixty-four. Knowing this makes Ismail’s following question and answer very interesting:
Where have I existed these years? I answer myself: up on the wall, peering over.
Ismail and Otilia cannot comprehend what they are about to witness, though. One morning, Ismail got out of bed early, wandered around town, and got arrested. He knows the presence of the soldiers is bad news, but he is released and is anxious to tell his wife the story. On his way home, he finds that the army (who knows which one) has taken away Eusebio, his neighbor, and two of their children. Several people are trying to comfort Geraldina:
“But do you know what this is like?” she asks him, with sudden force, as if rebelling.
“I know, we all know,” the doctor replies, looking around.
We all, in our turn, look at each other, and it is as if we did not really know, as if in a surreptitious way we understood, without shame, that we do not know what this is like, but this not knowing is not our fault, this we do seem to know.
She has turned back to me.
“He came in at midnight with other men and took the children, just like that, profesor. He took the children, saying nothing, without a word to me, like a dead man. The other men held guns on him: I’m sure they had forbidden him to speak, don’t you think? That’s why he could not say anything to me. I don’t want to think he couldn’t speak out of pure cowardice. He himself took the children by the hand. . . .”
It becomes worse for Ismail himself when he goes home and can’t find Otilia. She has gone looking for him, and now he’s always a step behind her. It’s truly tender how he searches and searches and talks to Otilia. Here is a wonderful passage, a good example of the quality of the prose and of Rosero’s ability to play with rhythm and imagery to make it all tangible.
My arms and legs swing with no rhythm whatsoever as I proceed along the streets as if through piles of cotton, what bad dream do these empty, uneasy streets belong to; down each of them I am pursued by physical, floating, dark air, although I see that the sun weighs heavily on the streets: why did I not bring my hat?
That last little bit there about the hat — it is a perfect coda to this great, weary sentence, bringing the dreaminess back to the quotidian. In fact, several times while searching for his wife and witnessing unspeakable violence, Ismail is embarrassed at his preponderance to be distracted by, say, a woman’s thigh. He’s humiliated and he cannot seem to help it, yet in him we recognize a humanity that is worthy of emulation.
In case it is not apparent in this review, I found this book to be masterful. McLean’s translation is flawless, definitely worthy of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Rosero’s writing and story are beautiful and worthy of our time. I read it in one very busy day, and in the end I wanted to sit in reverent silence for the wonderful writing and especially for the tragic story it tells.