Away from San José

The Armies

Evelio Rosero

Quercus, 214pp, £14.99

Based on news bulletins and personal accounts of the civil war that has racked Colombia since the 1960s, Evelio Rosero’s latest novel – his 13th, but the first to appear in English – has a dreamlike, fractured quality. Ismael, an elderly former teacher who has tired of life almost completely, lives in the small town of San José, where the undercurrent of military aggression is tipping over into all-out war. Characters slip in and out of the narrative abruptly as the violence builds, and guerrilla fighters take hostages, releasing some and killing others without warning or logic. When Ismael is arrested, a friend remarks darkly: “Being arrested just for getting up early would put anyone in a rotten mood, isn’t that so?”

On his release, Ismael discovers that his wife, Otilia, has gone missing, and he begins an increasingly panicked search for her. The more widespread the nightmarish violence becomes, the more survivors flee, killing off the town itself. Seeing little point in struggling to survive, Ismael is one of the few who stays.

Rosero’s understated, poetic prose turns the hopeless inevitability of the town’s destruction into a compulsive and urgent read. It is just a pity that more of his writing is not available in English.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess