Witness to war: Evelio Rosero on fiction that fights for the truth

Boyd Tonkin salutes the winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Maya Jaggi meets Evelio Rosero

Across the history of modern literature, from the scarred towns and ravaged valleys of civil-war Spain and occupied France to the jungle villages of Vietnam and the bleak estates of northern Ireland, dirty wars have often bred the purest kind of fiction. Where random violence puts every value in jeopardy, and an end to all that matters can drop from a cloudless sky or burst in through a front door, the story of lives in peril can – in gifted hands – acquire a force, gravity and tenderness without parallel.

So it is with the novel that has won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: The Armies by Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and published by the MacLehose Press imprint of Quercus Books. As always, author and translator will share the award of £10,000 accompanying this prize, which is generously supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. Judge Linda Grant pays her tribute to the winning novel below; we were joined on this year's panel by Kate Griffin, Fiona Sampson and and Mark Thwaite.

From a record entry of 126, two Colombian novels reached the shortlist.They were The Armies and The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez - also translated by Anne McLean. The other contenders, each of them warmly supported right down to the final stretch, were Voice Over by Céline Curiol (translated by Sam Richard), The Siege by Ismail Kadare (David Bellos), Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (Flora Drew), and Friendly Fire by AB Yehoshua (Stuart Schoffman).

Gentle in voice but ferocious in impact, The Armies tells the story of the destruction of a small highland town by the rival bands of soldiers, guerrillas and paramilitaries that have plagued rural Colombia for so many bitter years. Immaculately pitched and paced, Anne McLean's English version does it lavish justice. This war is every war; these victims all victims; these armies every jittery pack of frightened kids ever handed a rifle. Yet this is the reverse of a nihilistic novel, as small acts of love, friendship and solidarity shine all the brighter on the brink of annihilation. If this age of terror and counter-terror, of insurgency and counter-insurgency, and – above all – of civilian suffering and "collateral damage" needs its own low-intensity answer to All Quiet on the Western Front, it should look no further than The Armies.

'There's no family in Colombia that has not been affected', by Maya Jaggi

When Ingrid Betancourt was freed last summer after six years held hostage by Colombian guerrillas, Evelio Rosero's thoughts were with the kidnap victims still in captivity. Most are ordinary citizens, seized by guerrillas, paramilitaries or criminal thugs for ransom, not the "jewels in the crown", as the French-Colombian politician and her three American companions were known. "We are all happy," Rosero told me in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, "But she's one among many, and we must not forget all the rest."

Rosero's concern for civilians caught up in more than four decades of fratricidal conflict spurred his winning book, The Armies. He has written short stories and children's books. This is his seventh novel, published in Spanish in 2006 ­ and his first to be translated into English. In 2006, he won Colombia's National Literature Prize, awarded by the culture ministry.

Also a journalist, aged 51, Rosero spent four years in Paris and Barcelona in the 1980s. A diffident man, he spoke to me in his home town of Bogotá, a high-altitude Andean city bounded by mountains, while I was in Colombia looking for reflections in art of South America's longest-running war.

As many as 100,000 people - mostly civilians - have been killed or "disappeared" in the past 20 years in a conflict involving the army, narco-traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries, according to an Amnesty International report last October. The strong-arm "democratic security" policy of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, in power since 2002, has improved safety in cities. The streets outside the hotel where we met are safer, and kidnap rates are down. Yet in swathes of the countryside, war goes on. Colombia has the world's worst landmines toll.

The novel's rural setting of San José, surrounded by coca fields and landmines, is not a real place, Rosero says, but a composite that "can stand for any village in Colombia. I took everyday life, idyllic as it seemed, and sabotaged it as violence came in."

As the retired teacher Ismael searches for his missing wife, and the town empties as people flee gun battles and kidnappings, the novel descends from gentle comedy into brutal violence ­ with random blasts and shootings, girls abducted by guerrillas, a man decapitated as a collaborator. One soldier is "almost a uniformed child". An unexploded grenade nestles like a "grey flower" in the grass.

This was not Rosero's first attempt to capture the war in a novel. "I'd tried abstract and surrealist, dream-like approaches. Then it occurred to me that, without being polemical or political, you could approach it through research, like an investigative journalist ­ which I am."

He drew on news reports, eavesdropping in bars and buses, and interviews with some of the estimated 3.8 million rural desplazados swelling urban shanty towns ­ the largest internally displaced population outside Sudan. Most he spoke to were in Bogotá or Calí - where his mother lives. "There's no family in Colombia that has not been affected," he says, adding that friends of his have had relatives kidnapped or shot in crossfire.

While other Colombian novelists have depicted urban narco-trafficking, Rosero believes himself among the first to portray today's rural war. His aims were to broach a "sea of indifference", and hopes that "other people, including abroad, would understand what it is to have lived this violence".

Until about 15 years ago, "it used to be battles between armed groups. What's new is the unarmed being gunned down by the armed ­ the kidnappings and mass killings of unarmed civilians." He attributes this phase to the "rise of the paramilitaries that sharpened the whole conflict". These private armies, which began as self-defence forces against the guerrillas, are seen as right-wing, and the guerrillas left-wing – though both are part-financed by kidnapping and cocaine. For Rosero, "neither side has any ideology, but it's still true that paramilitaries are behind the worse massacres."

As a novelist, Rosero "couldn't take sides", but used art "as a witness". The armies blur increasingly into a single "they". As Ismael says, "Whoever they belong to, they're the same hands." The facts are in any case contested. In the novel, "The president affirms that neither here nor anywhere else in the country is there a war." As Ismael cries when weighing the competing stories of a paralysed father and the children he feels are abandoning him, "Who to believe?" Ismael's losing his memory suggests a country forgetting itself and its values. For Rosero, "he still remembers a time that's vanished, of peace, mutual respect, love ­ of women - which is part of our identity. It's the shock of an older person horrified by the world a new generation is creating."

The real army is satirised. Captain Berrío shoots into a crowd, shouting, "Guerrillas, you are the guerrillas." General Palacios evacuates his zoo animals by helicopter. "It's all real ­ taken from newspapers; nothing is from my imagination," Rosero protests. Just last month, Britain suspended bilateral aid to the Colombian military (other than anti-narcotics) over an army scandal in which civilian corpses were passed off as dead guerrillas to boost the body count.

While the government claims to be defeating the guerrilla groups - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and ELN ­ and to have demobilised paramilitaries after an amnesty, Rosero says that "impunity is our daily bread. There's no consistency in punishing the guilty. The paramilitaries have infiltrated the whole political and judicial system ­ it's rotten." As for levels of violence in the countryside, "what's happening on the ground hasn't changed."

What has altered, he feels, is "how people are coming together to oppose the war," with millions on marches and peace demonstrations. "There's a response whenever there's an upsurge in violence," he says. "Civilians just want to be left alone."

Appreciation by Linda Grant

A retired teacher in a small town in Colombia spies on naked women. It has been many years since he first laid eyes on his wife, hoisting down her knickers in a bus station toilet, but decrepitude has not stopped him from being a voyeur.

On a single day, the town is laid waste by a massacre: guerrilla fighters, paramilitaries and the state descend on the people and kidnap or murder them in gruesome acts of decapitation.

The old man returns from a visit to a friend on the edge of town to find his wife is not at home. He goes from neighbour to neighbour but he is told that he has just missed her. By the end of the day, she has vanished. Her name is not among those for whom huge ransoms are demanded, but nor is there a body.

Two years later, the armed men come again to a depopulated town and the retired teacher takes the last stand, on behalf of humanity.

Out of a huge field of 126 submissions, 'The Armies' was always my choice for the winner of this year's 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize. It rises effortlessly above the contemporary political novel because it contains no history lessons or manifestos. The central character is not a blameless innocent and the events could be taking place in Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Gaza or Congo.

War and violence eat people alive. War is horror and madness. It devours the causes that ignite it. For the townspeople, it does not matter from whose gun the bullets are being fired.

Evelio Rosero has dipped his pen in blood and written an epic in 215 pages. If anyone has wondered if there is life in the Colombian novel after magic realism, this is the evidence of the extraordinary power of that country's literature.

Linda Grant was a member of the judging panel for this year's 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize; her most recent book is 'The Thoughtful Dresser' (Virago)

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