San José is a town in the Colombian mountains whose inhabitants find themselves on the front line of a war. The war should be happening elsewhere, but the violence keeps slipping into San José. Fighters – guerrillas? paramilitaries? – make incursions, there are shoot-outs in the streets, random killings and kidnappings. None of the people has anything to do with the causes of the war, yet it invades all lives.
The church has been restored after a bombing, but not the hospital; the local school can't function; the electricity has been down for months. Life and death are decided by tiny arbitrary moments. A grenade is thrown, but doesn't explode. How do people live from day to day in such a place?
Ismael is the 70-year-old ex-teacher, known to everyone. He took a teaching job aged 22, intending to stay a few years, and he is still there now, retired, with his wife Otilia, their cats, their fishpond, their orange groves, and getting old. His great pleasure is climbing the ladder to pick his oranges, because this allows a good view of the Brazilian's wife, Geraldina, sunbathing naked next door. As a boy, he remembers, he used to climb trees to spy on young women bathing naked in the river nearby.
The past is important to old Ismael's story. But there is no obvious future, not for Ismael, not for his town. As the acts of violence increase in frequency, more people make plans to leave San José – many of the young have left. The town begins to die. Increasingly, the only people who remain are those too ill to leave, too old to leave, too stubborn to leave, or those holding out hope that their kidnapped loved ones might one day return. On the day of the hospital massacre, Otilia goes missing too.
Ismael's world begins to unravel. He's been having trouble with his leg, with bladder control, with lapses of memory. Now he becomes dislocated in a place he knows and doesn't know, seeing his few friends get picked off by guerrilla bullets, or leave crushed by despair. One of Otilia's cats is killed in an explosion, and her fish die when their sandstone fountain is blown up. Ismael worries how she will react when she returns home. If she does return.
The violence is momentary but often shocking, shown in brief, grim pictures; the building despair is finely controlled and oppressive; but The Armies is a swift and engaging piece of prose. In Anne McLean's fine translation, often beautifully rhythmic and economical, Ismael's voice brings the reader into the human experience at the heart of what could easily be an over-political, heartless story. The war is not about politics for these characters, not about rival factions fighting for control. It is about personal tragedies, the loss of a wife, struggles with physical ailments, sensations of pain, heat, thirst, hope and hopelessness. And Evelio Rosero's book is all the more powerful for it.