- Author: Alberto Olmos
- Reader: Monica Chapa Domercq
- Date: 3/1/12
Ejército enemigo is an engaging and intense novel that examines contemporary issues under the lens of age-old philosophy. The efficacy of protest and dissent, the prevalence of publicity and media “spin,” and Internet-induced loss of privacy are all issues that author Alberto Olmos entwines in this surprisingly thrilling mystery set in present day Madrid.
Protagonist Santiago Serrano is a modern day cynic who appears to suffer from Diogenes syndrome. The illness, characterized by self-neglect and hoarding, is Santiago’s self-diagnosis. Santiago says that he “hoards words,” he has saved almost every form of correspondence since he was a young boy and, as format and technology changed, has printed and archived every email he’s ever sent or received. In fact, the story is uniquely told from Santiago’s first person point of view and through excerpts from his journal, emails and text messages.
Much like Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who founded Cynicism, Santiago willfully leads a solitary and basically deprived life. There are relatively few inhabitants in Santiago’s isolated world, namely, those who are associated by his mundane occupation as a marginally successful publicist who markets “mediocre products” or acquaintances that can withstand his sharp skepticism and disaffected opinions about their youthful desire to change the world. Their passion and involvement in numerous social movements and various forms of activism is seen by Santiago as superficial, selfserving and affecting no real change.
Santiago’s opinions about his mostly upper class friends are severe and do not make him popular among his peers. In fact, Santiago seems to intentionally reject these relationships and even utters a phrase that sets in motion disastrous events that cause him to realize the potency and consequence of his words and philosophy as well as to try to solve the mystery of the murder of one of his friends. Santiago receives a rather unusual inheritance from his deceased friend and finds he has unprecedented access to the life that so tragically and suddenly ended. The novel comes to a rather unexpected and unpredictable conclusion as Santiago uncovers the secrets of his friend’s last days.
Another plotline of the novel is that of Santiago’s sexual behavior. His fixation with online pornography and masturbation and his inability to achieve intimacy with women are all documented by Santiago in his narrative. Santiago encounters an online site called ChatChinko in which participants watch each other in a range of sexual activities. Santiago becomes obsessed with ChatChinko and celebrates the anonymity that the Internet affords but doesn’t require. After watching a lengthy recording of a young couple having sex, he muses on the lack of privacy caused by the Internet but believes that what the Internet offers in exchange is permanence.
What is unique about this novel is that the author challenges popular notions of virtue in an unapologetic manner through this completely flawed character, Santiago. The main character’s politically incorrect assertions compel the reader to reflect on his or her own position on current themes and decide whether or not they agree with Santiago. While Santiago is extreme and often unlikable, American readers will relate to his environment and the trademarks of Western popular culture including his use of trendy language like “chatspeak” or “textease,” and reference to icons like Ernesto Che Guevara and Bob Dylan.
Ejército enemigo is a satirical novel and is often humorous in the style of writer Chuck Palahnuik (Fight Club, Pygmy). As with most effective satire, readers may sometimes find themselves shocked by the rawness and sometimes-brusque quality of content. On the other hand, one can’t help but be amused and disturbed as Santiago points out the hypocrisy of NGOs whose administrators earn astonishing salaries and whose activities mostly consist of attending parties and exploiting their minuscule contributions to social causes. Students, Santiago says, are primarily motivated to attend demonstrations in order to post photos of themselves on social media sites.
Solidarity, Publicity and Privacy are the repeated themes of the novel. It is sometimes frustrating to the reader to understand how these seemingly disparate concepts relate to each other until one character reveals a diagram that explains their relationship in the novel. This, however, does not detract from the author’s smart and original treatment of these timely and relevant topics. Ultimately, this is a fascinating read that is highly recommended for translation.