The Armies

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(331)

Evelio Rosero, Maclehose Press, £14.99

This important novel, which won Mexico's prestigious Tusquets Prize in 2006, is a story of a rural population terrorised by military raids, mercenary guerrilla kidnappings, torture and murder - robbed of land and the means of survival, torn apart and decimated. It could describe life in many parts of the world now suffering devastation from corrupt and brutal powers, backed by Western governments, multinationals and secret services. But Evelio Rosero is Colombian, his subject the barbarism being endured by Colombia, and The Armies is effectively suppressed in that country.

Not that this is any kind of history lesson. You will search the pages in vain for names or facts. The achievement of this unsettling novel is in depicting horror through the gradual disintegration of the narrator's mind.

Ismael is a retired teacher in the fictitious mountain town of San José. At 70, he is not particularly heroic with his alcohol habit, swollen joints and furtive obsession with spying on his neighbour's naked wife. His own wife, Otilia, keeps him fed and in check.

San José is scarred but not ennobled by an onslaught of violence and kidnappings two years before. The wife and the mistress of a kidnapped man slug out their rivalry on the anniversary of his disappearance. Suspicions of dirty deals done with kidnappers simmer under the surface.

Then "they" come back.

The townspeople must once more tiptoe past trigger-happy soldiers, tremble under beds and cower behind walls as bullets and grenades rain into their souls. Ismael struggles home to find his neighbour, his neighbour's children and the baker's pregnant wife all gone. Most terrifyingly, there is no sign of Otilia. Without her, he is lost. So begins a stumbling quest among the mounting horrors as - unwashed, starving and sleepless - he descends into inner chaos.

The reader is drawn into a parallel state of confusion and fear, but tenderly. Characters drawn with mesmerising economy vanish. Ludicrous details filter through - Ismael thinks he can hear the pastry seller shouting his wares through whistling bullets. Rosero plays with conventions, placing the main attack at the book's centre, so all through the first half we are dreading it, just like the locals. Characters shift shape. We don't know friends from enemies. Present and past tenses weave to play tricks with time and memory.

Conventions only go so far. In Hollywood war films the noble make sacrifices, the greedy are punished or redeemed, and protagonists force a conclusion. Not so in real life or real wars. Like the system itself, devices must be reinvented - and perhaps in an age of crisis and stark choices, this is the challenge for storytellers. Evelio Rosero has met it with poetry, humanity and force.