In the town of San Jose in the remote mountains of Colombia, Ismael, a retired teacher, spends his mornings fathering oranges in the sunshine and spying on his neighbour Geraldina as she sunbathes naked in her garden. It is a languid existence, pierced only by his wife’s scolding, which induces in him the furtive guilt of an ageing voyeur.
Ismael knows everyone in town, taught Father Albornoz, priest of the local church, in school since he was 8, attend annual party in the mayor’s house, hosted by Hortensia the wife of abducted mayor Marcos Saldarriaga and annoyed with his wife incessant nagging and scolding for his voyeuristic trait.
What turned out to be an idyllic town and its inhabitant turns into a nightmare, when bullets flew over everyone’s heads, corpses turned out by the roads as the soldiers guerrillas, the paramilitaries invaded the town and terrorise the locals. Ismael returns from an early morning walk one day and cannot find his wife, Otilia. The old man is fearful, for soon more people beginning to go missing or fleeing the town and bursts of gunfire can be heard in the distance. Sensing war drawing near, most of the villagers make their escape, but Ismael and a few others decides to stay, becoming an unwilling witness to the senseless violence that steadily sweeping through his country.
Ismael’s story has the sad inevitability of everyday happenings in a country racked by civil war. From the first instance I picked up the book I sensed an inevitable doom and despair despite the brash and cheeky book opening of Ismael being an old peeping tom. I needed a South American book to read, and this book looks appealing and easy to digest. As the story unfolds, as more and more violence and pain are inflicted on the innocence, we experience the hallucination and confusion told by an old man battered by a reality he no longer understands.
The book made a lasting impression of the horror, the senseless killing that is going on in the civil war in a lawless country.
It’s this country. If you go down the list, president by president, they’ve all screwed up. – Lesmes
The parts where Ismael stays waiting for his wife to come home was very touching. He had to lie to her daughter Maria, who is urging both parents to leave San Jose, that her mother is well. So Ismael had to write the letter to her daughter concealing the fact that her mother had gone missing:
We still do not want to leave, I shall tell her, what should we leave for, at this stage/ those would be your own words, Otilia: but thank you for the offer and may God bless you. We will keep your support in mind, but will have to think about it: we need time to leave this house, time to leave what we have to leave, time to pack up what we need to take, time to say goodbye for ever, time for time. If we have spent our whole lives here, why not a few weeks more? We are still hoping that the situation here will change, and if it does not change then we shall see, or we shall go or we shall die, as God wills, let God’s will be done, whatever pleases God, whatever he feels like. (page 142)
The last scene involving Geraldina is especially shocking that the image lingers in my mind for a long time. It dovetailed and contrasted with the opening of Geraldina, symbolises the subject of beauty that is first craved became ruin.
In my opinion, the key to a literary success is to induce love and empathy to the protagonist. This is where the book fails. I didn’t find Ismael likable, nor like any of the characters which shows up in the book. It feels like some horrible things happening to a group of people that I don’t really care much, as horrifying as it was.
I’m reading this for my first South America book for 2010 Global Reading Challenge and A to Z Challenge.
Hardback. Publisher: MacLehose Press 2008; Length: 215 pages; Setting: Contemporary Columbia. Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 25 April 2010. The book is translated from Spanish by Anne McClean.
About the Writer:
Evelio Rosero is the author of seven novels and two collections of short stories, as well as books for children and young adults. In Colombia his work has been recognised by the National Literature Award. The Armies won the Tusquets International Novel Prize in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Anne McClean has translated books by Julio Cortazar, Tomas Eloy Martinez and Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Her translations of novels by Javier Cercas has been short-listed for the 2008 Impac prize and awarded the 2004 independent foreign Fiction Prize and Premio Valle Inclan.