Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not Hannah Arendt was correct when she described the “banality of evil,” let’s use the phrase while meditating upon Carolyn Forché’s excellent prose poem, “The Colonel.” That, essentially, is what Forché is attempting to describe in her visit to an unnamed leader of a country presumably in Latin America. The Colonel is not a fanged monster dwelling in a dank cave. The Colonel lives with his family in a comfortable estate, capable of enjoying the finer things in life, good wine, conversation, and even poetry. His family behaves as families do, the son going out for the night, the daughter casually listening in.
When The Colonel finally reveals his methods for ruling a country difficult govern, we are shocked by the ordinary, dismayed by the normality of what is going on. What spills from a “sack used to bring groceries home,” is described as being dried apricot halves. Lured in by the ordinary, we the readers read the rest very closely, conscious that we are in a suddenly perilous space. The Colonel shakes an ear in their faces. Some of the ears are still catching The Colonel’s words, others have flipped to listening to what’s beneath the surface. An incredible image left in pristine ambiguity. Despite the mutilations, the Colonel still commands an audience. The poet is in this audience, so are the ears, and so are we, the readers. We are all right there in a perfectly normal dining room surrounded by an atrocity. But are some of the ears listening for the approach of something else?
I chose this story to respond to because I love its use of language. An entire world exists within its narrow bounds. The words are common place, soothing. “There is no other way to say this…” Well, with all apologies to Forché, of course there are. There are always others ways to describe the incomprehensible -- Forché chose her language very carefully to paint a brutal series of images. While the events at dinner are appalling they kept at a conversational tone. Her casual approach is not just meant to surprise. It is meant to suggest, as Arendt did, that evil is not extraordinary. It is not something exotic and distant but as close as the dinner table.