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Good Offices: First Reviews

Evelio Rosero’s second novel in English translation, Good Offices, was published this month. His first novel in translation, The Armies, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009.

Here are some of the first reviews for Good Offices, all at this stage for the (identical in terms of text) American edition, which is being published by New Directions. Anne McLean, who translated The Armies, worked with a co-translator for Good Offices, Anna Milsom, who is interviewed here. Click here to read an extract from the novel.

Biblioklept Review

In Poetics, that ancient didact Aristotle informs us that admirable drama adheres to unities of action, place, and time. There must be no extraneous subplots, just one central action confined to a specific and defined place and time—no more than 24 hours, in fact.

I was reminded of these (oft-broken) rules when reading Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, a sharp, gleaming novel that illustrates just how effective these classical unities might be in the hands of a gifted author. Rosero’s tale snakes out over the course of only a few hours and takes place entirely in a Catholic church in Bogotá, Colombia. The action—more on that in a moment—is indivisible from the time and place.

Good Offices centers on Tancredo, a hunchback afflicted with “a terrible fear of being an animal.” Tancredo is basically an indentured servant of the church, strung along by Father Almida’s promises of a college education that never seems to surface. His great “cross to bear” is the program of Community Meals that Father Almida mandates (yet never helps execute) each night—charity meals for children, old people, blind people, whores, and families (all segregated by day of the week, naturally). In particular, Tancredo hates the nights for the old people, indigents who complain about the free food and then pretend to be dead so they don’t have to go back to the dark streets of Bogotá. Sometimes they do die though, and it’s Tancredo who must discover their abject corpses.

Read the full review at

Three Per Cent Review

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.

Read the full review at Three Percent

Rosero Interview

BOMB Magazine ran an interview with Evelio Rosero by Antonio Ungar last year, which is well worth a look:

Antonio Ungar You spent part of your childhood in the upper Andes, in the south of Colombia. Tell me whether your literature has been affected by the city of Pasto and the geography of the region of Nariño.

Evelio Rosero Yes, of course. Childhood is the most formative stage in a writer’s life, or anyone’s. Especially the villages I’ve depicted in my novels, I’ve noticed—after the writing—correspond to the memory of those villages in the Andes that my family used to visit. So, in my fiction, their description is linked to an ancestral memory: their rural spaces and atmospheres, their indigenous faces, their geographical and human abysses, is unconscious.

AU Many of your books are for a young readership and yet, in some of your novels—in En el lejero (In the distance) and in some scenes of The Armies—groups of children are threatening creatures; they chase the protagonists, throw stones at them, make fun of them. In The Armies, a group of kids plays with a grenade and threatens to physically annihilate one of the main characters. Why? Are these just coincidences that aren’t worth spending too much time on?

ER Children are also threatening in some of my “children’s books.” Cruelty in children is a reality, just like their innocence. I am aware of all these passions, as elemental as they might be, when writing—whether a children’s story, or a full-length novel. When I write for children, or when I used to write, because I seem to have lost the joy in doing this, I don’t think I’m addressing marvelous, winged creatures. As a boy I suffered, as children suffer in this life, as intensely or more so than grown-ups. The coincidence that you point out to me seems, for this reason, very important. It had puzzled me that no one else seemed to have noticed.

Read the full interview at BOMB Magazine

Backlist Extract: The Armies by Evelio Rosero

And this is how it was: at the Brazilian’s house the  macaws laughed all the time; I heard them from the top of my garden wall, when I was up the ladder, picking my oranges, tossing them into the big palm-leaf basket; now and again I sensed the three cats behind me watching from high up in the almond trees. What were they telling me? Nothing, there was no understanding them. Further back, my wife fed the fish in the pond: this is how we grew old, she and I, the fish and the cats, but my wife and the fish, what were they telling me? Nothing, there was no understanding them.

The sun was beginning.

The Brazilian’s wife, the slender Geraldina, sought out the heat on her terrace, completely naked, lying face down on the red floral quilt. At her side, in the refreshing shade of a ceiba tree, the Brazilian’s enormous hands roved astutely along his guitar, and his voice rose, placid and persistent, between the sweet laughter of the macaws; this is how the hours proceeded on their terrace, amid sunlight and music.

In the kitchen, the lovely little cook – they called her Gracielita – washed the dishes standing on a yellow stool. I could see her through the unglazed kitchen window giving on to the garden. She swayed her backside, oblivious, as she worked: behind the short, very white skirt every bit of her body jiggled, to the frenzied and painstaking rhythm of her task: plates and cups blazed in her copper-coloured hands: occasionally a serrated knife appeared, shiny and happy, but somewhat bloodstained. I suffered too, apart from her suffering, from that bloodstained knife. The Brazilian’s son, Eusebito, watched her on the sly, and I studied him studying her, he ducked under a table loaded with pineapples, she buried in the deepest ignorance, self-possessed, unknowing. He, trembling and pale – discovering his first mysteries – was fascinated and tormented by the tender white panties, slipping up through generous cheeks; I could not manage a glimpse of them from where I was, but, more than that: I imagined them. She was the same age as him, twelve. She was almost plump and yet willowy, with rosy glints on her tanned face, her curly hair black, like her eyes: on her chest two small hard fruits rose up as if in search of more sun. Orphaned early – her parents had died when our town was last attacked by whichever army it was, whether the paramilitaries or the guerrillas: a stick of dynamite exploded in the middle of the church, at the hour of the Elevation, with half the town inside; it was the first mass of Holy Thursday and there were fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded – the child was saved by a miracle: she was at the school selling little sugar figures; since then – some two years ago – she has lived and worked in the Brazilian’s house on the recommendation of Father Albornoz. Very well instructed by Geraldina, she learned how to make all the meals, and lately was even concocting new dishes, so for the past year, at least, Geraldina has had no more to do with the kitchen. This I knew, seeing Geraldina tanning herself in the morning sun, drinking wine, stretched out with no concern other than the colour of her skin, the smell of her own hair as if it were the colour and texture of her heart. And not in vain when her long, long copper-coloured hair flew along every single street of this San José, town of peace, if she graced us with a stroll.

The diligent and still young Geraldina saved the money Gracielita earned.

“When you turn fifteen,” I heard her say, “I shall give you all the money you have earned and lots of presents as well. You can study dressmaking, you’ll be a proper lady, you’ll get married, we’ll be the godparents of your first child, you’ll come to see us every Sunday, won’t you, Gracielita?” and she laughed, and I heard her, and Gracielita laughed too: in that house she had her own room, there awaiting her each night were her bed and her dolls.

We, their closest neighbours, could attest with hand on heart that they treated her just like a daughter.

At any time of the day the children would forget the world and play in the garden burning with light. I saw them. I heard them. They ran between the trees, rolled in each other’s arms on the gentle grassy hillsides that stretched away from the house, dropped over the edges, and, after the game, after the hands that slipped together unnoticed, the necks and legs that brushed each other, the breath that intermingled, they went together to watch in fascination a leaping yellow frog or the surprising slither of a snake, which paralysed them with fear.

Sooner or later the shout would come from the terrace: it was Geraldina, more naked than ever, sinuous under the sun, her voice also a flame, sharp yet melodious.

She called: “Gracielita, time to sweep the hallway.”

They left their game, and a slight sad annoyance returned them to the world. She went running at once back to the broom, across the garden, the white apron fluttering against her belly like a flag, hugging her young body, sculpting the pubis, but he followed her and soon enough took up again, involuntarily, not understanding, the other essential game, the paroxysm that made him identical to me, despite his youth, the panic game, the incipient but enthralling desire to look at her without her knowing, delectably to lie in wait for her: all of her a face in profile, her eyes as if absolved, steeped in who knows what dreams, then the calves, the round knees, the whole legs, just the thighs, and if he’s lucky, beyond, up into the depths.

“You climb that wall every day, profesor. Don’t you get bored?”

“No. I pick my oranges.”

“And something more. You look at my wife.”

The Brazilian and I studied each other for an instant.

“From what I can see,” he said, “your oranges are round, but my wife must be more rounded, no?”

We smiled. What else could we do?

“It’s true,” I said. “If you say so.”

The Armies, translated by Anne McLean, won the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Return of the Mac (Once Again)

In 2011 MacLehose Press are releasing six titles by authors who are publishing their second novel with us. Translated from French, Spanish, Arabic and Dutch, two have won Independent Foreign Fiction Prizes while all have been extremely well received by reviewers.

In November of last year we previewed the first three: The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy, The Goldsmith’s Secret by Elia Barceló and Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel. Now its time to turn attention to the three to be published in the second half of 2011, new novels by Elias Khoury, Evelio Rosero and Otto de Kat, translated by Humphrey Davies, Anne McLean with Anna Milsom, and Ina Rilke, respectively.

Yalo, by the great Lebanese author Elias Khoury, was first published by MacLehose Press in 2009. Earlier this year the translator, Humphrey Davies, won the Banipal Prize for Arabic translation for his rendering of the novel into English. It was the second time that this partnership had won the prize, and who would bet against there being a third success?

“This novel is a tour de force for both author and translator, an ambitious work which deals magnificently with the violence of history and the loss and uses of language, with torture and rape and sexuality. An important and complex book, which brings the history of Lebanon vividly, painfully and colourfully to life.”
Margaret Drabble, Banipal citation

As Though She Were Sleeping, the winner of the first Arabic Novel Prize, is in every respect a worthy follow-up. Focusing on the life of young Lebanese woman who takes refuge from reality in sleeping and dreaming, it is richly and powerfully symbolic of the human cost of the ongoing troubles in the Middle East. Jilted by a suitor, Meela marries a Palestinian man many years her senior and leaves her family to live in a city far from home in a country that is soon to be plunge into chaos by the arrival of Jewish settles and the creation of the state of Israel.

Colombian Evelio Rosero won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – the second of three international literary awards – for The Armies, a beautiful but harrowing novel about a remote rural village destroyed by remorseless violence.  The opening paragraphs offer startlingly lyrical prose, and what follows serves as a faithful and unflinching account of the evils that blight an otherwise forward-looking and creative nation.

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, Independent

Good Offices is a mischievous and  surreal satire on the role of the Catholic Church in Colombia. Tancredo is a hunchback in virtual servitude to the parish, who is relentlessly pursued by the sacristan’s goddaughter. His life takes a turn for the bizarre when a stand-in priest is brought in at the last moment, whose mesmerizing sung mass and unquenchable thirst for aguardiente elicits very strange behaviour from the denizens of the church.

Man on the Move is a poetic and heartbreaking tale drawn from the often overlooked Dutch involvement in the Second World War. Rob, the son of a provincial mayor leaves his home country in pursuit of less restricted life and, after a stint in the mines outside Johannesburg, joins up to fight and is subsequently captured by the Japanese.

“This is a novel of extraordinary power and moral beauty, executed with a poet’s intricate artistry. Between its opening and closing departures, we proceed according to some deep psychic logic, ever further into a life not well-lived but, even so, strangely exemplary.” Paul Binding, Independent

Otto de Kat returns to the Second World War period with Julia. His spare, impressionistic prose is the perfect vehicle for conveying the sense of purpose that gripped Hitler’s Germany in the pre-war years. The story is told from the perspective of a naive young Dutchman who falls in love with a brilliant, vivacious engineer. Yet her irrepressible, libertine spirit puts her on a irrevocable collision course with the Nazi authorities, and Chris’ courage, forever undermined by his shaky self-esteem, will be tested to its limits.

You can read an extract from Man on the Move here. And by the way, if you can tell us who it is that adorns the cover of Julia, you will win all three of the new novels profiled here.

Evelio Rosero Wins Another International Prize


The Danish edition of The Armies has won the ALOA Prize that awards and promotes literature from Africa, Latin America, Oceania and Asia in Denmark. It is the third literary prize Rosero has won for the novel, following the Tusquets Editores Prize (2006) for a novel from the Spanish-speaking world and the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2009), which was shared with translator Anne McLean.

Chair of judges for the IFFP in 2009, Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, said The Armies “not only laments the Colombian people’s tragedy but celebrates the universal but always fragile virtues of everyday life and speaks of terrible events with a precision and humanity that earn the reader’s affection as well as respect”. McLean’s translation, meanwhile, “captures every shade and nuance of this story in words that match gravity and grace”.

The Armies will be followed this year by Good Offices, also translated by Anne McLean, who is surely in line for Colombia’s highest honour by now for her ongoing work in translating her finest writers, this time in collaboration with Anna Milsom. A very different animal from The Armies, Good Offices is an ever so slightly surreal satire on the iniquities of the Catholic Church in Colombia that nevertheless carries sinister undertones as it twists towards a quietly shocking conclusion. It will be published in September.