Special Feature: The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean, published by New Directions (jacket design by Erik Rieselbach)
It seems like all this book does is go around winning prizes and knocking readers over the head. And rightfully so, on both counts. I myself read it in about a day and a half, my pace quickening as I went, snapping at anyone who interrupted me. Relevant comparisions: Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, maybe Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. Rosero is Colombian, and he likes García Márquez a lot, but comparisions between the two are misguided, in my opinion. The Armies is Macondo become hell itself, then made into a four-hour movie by a half-mad director and a cast of drug-crazed actors shooting at each other with live ammunition. Or better than that: The Armies is basically real, and that's what's so horrifying about it. It also happens to be an anti-war novel that makes its point without being didactic, and without irony or sarcasm. Catch-22 narrated by the people getting bombed, for once. What follows are interviews I did over email with the book's author, Evelio Rosero, and its English translator, Anne McLean. Thanks to them both, and to Renato Gomez, who somehow managed to make me sound polite when he revised my questions for Mr. Rosero. And apologies to all and sundry for the Joyce pun headline above. I couldn't help it. —Brandon Holmquest
photo by Sandra Páez; courtesy New Directions
Calque: The Armies is obviously an antiwar novel. Why did you decide to write a novel, specifically, instead of maybe a piece of journalism or a report on these issues?
Rosero: I'm a novelist. With fiction, I feel like a fish in the water. Journalism for me was just a way to earn a bit of money to pay the rent or the bills. Any work other than ficiton, however related to literature it might be, causes me a sort of intimate discomfort. The novel is definitely my spiritual resource for saying what I want to say to the world, for shouting.
Calque: I've read that you used journalistic methods to gather material for the novel. Can you tell us something about this process and what interested you in these investigations?
Rosero: They weren't really “journalistic methods.” There were simply news reports on the radio and television (during the writing of The Armies) that began to affect me in a very different way than they had before, that made me lose all hope for the country, but also made me rebel, with my writing. These reports and events, which I call reports from reality arose in such a way that they incorporated themselves into the novel I was writing as though the novel itself had been waiting for them. The trick was to elevate these motifs from raw reality to literature. I've always thought that a finished novel is more real than the very reality from which it originates. This assembly and purification of reality is the novelist's principal task. Then, when the novel was almost finished, to corroborate certain atmospheres, I spoke personally with some of the “desplazados,” those displaced by the violence, in Calí. But these weren't formally investigative, journalistic conversations. They were spontaneous, human, like a conversation between two strangers on the bus.
Calque: The Armies is in first person, in the voice of Ismael Pasos. Why did you choose first person, and why a character as advanced in age as Ismael?
Rosero: The first draft of the novel was worked out in the third person; I haven't discovered what internal mechanism moved me to put it into first. Something similar happened to me with other novels, but in reverse: I started them in the first person, and wound up switching to third. I've never worried about finding out the reasons, but I think these changes of perspective, the attributes of the narrative voice, remain in the background of the work all the same, and maybe give it a certain originality and even a double objectivity.
Calque: Is the use of the name Ismael an allusion to Herman Melville?
Rosero: The protagonist's name came to me very quickly, unpremeditated, the way I prefer to name my characters. Of course, I instantly thought of Melville and of his extraordinary opening line, still unequalled in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” I immediately wanted to change the character’s name, but just as quickly decided not to. In the end it seemed to me that the old teacher Ismael Pasos was another Ishmael, confronted with “another” monster of the most fearsome proportions, though not managing to survive.
Calque: Although The Armies expresses a moral horror for the war, it's not exactly an ideological novel in the manner of some of the later Cortázar, for example. Do you think this is because you prefer to remain outside of ideology, or is the role of ideology in Latin American literature changing?
Rosero: The way I see it, the novelist should situate himself outside of ideology. Of course a novelist has an ideology, which is permanent, which obeys his principles and his culture, his particular interpretation of reality, etc. But to directly wield an ideology, its aims, questions, solutions and puzzles, is more appropriate for an essay or a study, I think. Obviously the novel can let you do anything, and for this very reason it is a great genre, but also a dangerous one. Ultimately, the novel is art. It's humanism. As a reader I'm no great friend of the novels you refer to as ideological. As soon as a writer voluntarily proposes to advance an explicit ideology in his work he commits the worst error: he forgets the human being, which is essentially he himself, who loves and feels fear, hatred, hunger and loneliness without need of ideologies, whatever his race or creed. To try and exceed reality, to impose a reality by means of the novel, is already truth enough.
Calque: It seems to me that The Armies can be read allegorically, did you write it with that intention?
Calque: You've spoken of Colombian indifference toward the violence in the country. Do you think your book has affected that indifference? Do you think a novel is capable of doing such a thing?
Rosero: Yes, I believe a novel can change things. Not in an immediate way, the way a film can, or a television program or a piece of journalism. But the novel's ability to change things is, it seems to me, deeper, it sticks in your memory. It transforms consciousness. I myself have felt this transformative effect of the novel as a reader: I was not the same boy after reading Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t the same teenager after Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment. I know the United States through its poets and writers. I think my book—as various readers have confirmed—has chipped away at the indifference people feel toward this horrible daily custom of death and massacres in my country, of fathers, sons and brothers chained up for years. It's humanized their perception of reality, through the novel. But this was not my goal when I sat down to write. I only wanted to write about what was affecting me deep down, as a human being, not as a sociologist or a journalist or a historian: my reality, my country. Death and fear very near to desire and love.
Calque: Are you surprised by the success that The Armies has had outside of Colombia, especially in the English-speaking world? Why do you think it's had such success?
Rosero: Something strange has happened to me with the success and translations. It always seems like it's happening to someone else, some other writer. It's not about me. I'd like it, but I am still here and he is still over there.
Calque: Which writers have been the most important for you? Which contemporary Colombian writers do you like the most?
Rosero: The 19th Century Russian writers are my masters. I reread them and find them stirring every time. Not long ago I read The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and I thought it was a tremendous, disturbing book, the kind of thing I haven't come across for a long time. Coetzee is another great writer. Now I'm reading a lot of histories of Colombian independence, which I have to force myself to read, joylessly, because it's the background for my next novel. But I long to read a good novel, discover another great writer. Reading is the best excuse for not writing, it's better than traveling, or the same, but you go farther. The only thing comparable to a good book is making love. I hope, therefore, that García Márquez hasn’t stopped writing. We could still get one more book out of him, I think. Among Colombian authors, I always keep an eye on Gabo. He's the best.
Calque: Like most Spanish-English translators, you work with books from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Was there anything about Los ejércitos, which is so Colombian, that took an adjustment, or a different kind of approach? Did you have to do any research?
McLean: I always have to do lots of research. Los ejércitos was my second Colombian novel so I already had a great diccionario de colombianismos and was already paying attention to the place, reading around the novels in English and Spanish. I don’t think I really took a different approach than with any of the other things I’ve translated.
Calque: Evelio's prose style is rather poetic, taking full advantage of the greater flexibility in terms of word order within the individual sentence that Spanish offers, as opposed to English. How did you go about trying to capture his style without making him sound like a demented Romantic poet?
McLean: This is something I try not to think about while I’m doing it. When I first read, and was blown away by, Los ejércitos, my gut reaction to the prose style was: intraducible. To tell you the truth, I found the prospect of attempting to translate this book terrifying.
But in the end I just tried to follow Evelio’s lead and stick as close to his word order as I possibly could in English, whenever possible. And, as I’m sure he did, I pared down the prose with each successive draft. And then, as usual, read it aloud to see if I’d recaptured, or could recreate, any of the rhythms of the writing.
Calque: Judging by the prizes and reviews, this book seems to have struck a chord in the Anglo literary world. Were you surprised by that, and would care to hazard a guess as to why people are so into it?
McLean: I was very surprised. I suppose it could be because the book’s a surprise in itself: an artful treatment of an age-old subject, a beautifully told depiction of an ugly reality, and not at all what the opening pages might lead the reader to expect. I think it’s an almost inexplicably moving book and it speaks to our times. You don’t need to know anything about Colombia and its current conflict to understand these characters: defenseless civilians caught in a crossfire.
Months after the book was published here in the UK I heard a news reporter on the radio say, “The Americans are keen to tell us the villagers don’t want the Taliban here, and it’s true. The villagers don’t want the Taliban, but they don’t want American soldiers either. They don’t want Afghan soldiers. They don’t want men with guns in the village.” And I thought just change a very few words and he could be talking about rural Colombia.
Calque: How much interaction do you tend to have with an author you translate, and what kind of questions, problems, etc. do you turn to author for help with?
McLean: It varies enormously depending on how well I know an author. I didn’t meet Evelio until The Armies was published in London last October so I tended to only ask him questions I couldn’t figure out from other sources. I had pages of vocabulary and usage queries but I was also in touch with the German translator of the novel, Matthias Strobel, whose deadline was very close to mine, and we discussed some of the thorny issues like the shifts in verb tenses, and lots of specific difficulties to do with the demands of our languages (and publishers) when trying to recreate Evelio’s style.
My other great stroke of luck was that the other two Colombian authors I translate, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Héctor Abad Faciolince, happen to be the only two writers I’ve ever met in person before translating their work, so they were already friends, and already forgiving of the huge gaps in my understanding of their language. They both reviewed Los ejércitos and admired it and were both enormously helpful with specific vocabulary and usage and context. Now that I know Evelio, I won’t be so shy about asking him stuff the next time I translate one of his books.
But that’s how it goes. When I translated Soldiers of Salamis, for example, I think I asked Javier Cercas three questions after I’d been through several drafts and maybe three or four more during the copyediting. When I was working on his novel The Speed of Light, a few years later, I asked him hundreds, probably lots of stupid little things…
But most of my questions are along the lines of “What does that mean?” or “How unusual is that in Spanish?” I expect their usual first reaction is “Why doesn’t she know that?!”