In the Beginning Was the Sea, by Tomás González and translated by Frank Wynne
The dream that somewhere out there is an existence which is somehow more real, more authentic than the one we have has been around as long as there’s been people rich enough to be jaded by having too much. For those of us who don’t need to worry how we’ll put food on the table or meet this month’s rent it can be tempting to think that we’ve somehow become locked off from the “real” world; that if we just cut down, stripped back, we’d somehow have a richer life.
It’s nonsense of course. But it’s seductive nonsense. It only becomes dangerous though if we forget that reality isn’t a stage set designed as backdrop to our narrative. That can lead us to ill-judged interventions or to disastrous decisions.
As a quick aside, Pushkin generally have a knack for covers but here I think they’ve done particularly well. It’s beautiful, yet brooding. It perfectly captures the novel.
Written in 1983, In the Beginning Was the Sea follows J and his partner Elena as they move from urban life in Bogotá to a plantation they’ve bought on an island off the coast. They’re living the Thoreauvian dream, or at least that seems to be what they’ve told themselves.
The following is the opening and brief excerpts from the first few pages, all in the first chapter:
The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.
Elena and J. were heading for the sea.
When, finally, the bus arrived at the port, the sea was not magnificent and blue. The harbour was built on a narrow inlet that looked more like a canal – a filthy canal three kilometres long that spilt into the sea. At 4 p.m. the bus pulled in to the main plaza. There was no sign of the sea, though the air smelt of salt and the fetid stench of open drains.
The squat buildings of concrete and brick – mostly grain stores and seedy bars – were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.
In a sense that’s the whole book right there. They’re heading for the sea, but it’s not magnificent and blue. Look at the language: “filthy”; “fetid”; “grimy”; “ugly”; “garrulous”; “potbellied”; “yellowish”; “rotting”. It’s a litany of revulsion.
Within those first few pages each of J and Elena reveal their character. J slopes off to have a drink; Elena erupts in fury at indifferent locals when they mishandle her luggage. It’s the pattern for their future with J avoiding facing up to problems and Elena unable to adapt or build bridges with those around her.
On their island the house is decrepit and the cattle that came with it die as quickly as they’re born. The whole enterprise is clearly a disaster, and González drops heavy hints from early on that it’s only going to get worse:
Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end.
Spoilers aren’t relevant here because González himself isn’t interested in them. This is a book which unfolds like clockwork to an outcome which is flagged from the earliest pages. J finds himself turning from a back-to-the-land intellectual to a petty colonialist as the plantation sinks ever deeper into debt and he struggles to control his workforce. Elena sunbathes on a nearby beach scandalising the conservative locals before escalating matters by having razorwire erected to stop them looking at her, in the process blocking a path they’ve used since long before J and Elena were on the scene.
Hippy ideals collapse in the face of poverty and practicality. J and Elena’s relationship becomes increasingly strained; he retreats into a bottle and she continues her petty wars with the people she’s chosen to come and live among. They become what they would once have despised – J having to consider turning the island’s trees into lumber so that he can pay back over-extended bank loans, in the process destroying the rural idyll that he came for; Elena constantly enraged at what she sees as feckless and unreliable natives.
J is a reasonably well realised character, and his reflections and passing remarks do give a sense of how he might have come to think that buying a remote plantation was a good idea and what (however vaguely) he might have wanted to get out of it. Elena though just seems to be there because he is, yet plainly isn’t the sort of woman who just trails unquestioningly after her man. She’s attractive, determined, full of passion and temper. Did she share J’s ideals? Did he talk her into it? She hates it from the start which raises all the more question as to what she’s doing there.
At the book’s mid-point González includes a fragment of a letter from J’s brother who criticises J’s “highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit” and comments how J accused him of “becoming pretentious after I moved to Bogotá” and of “wasting my life in mental masturbation because I was afraid of facing up to real life”. Again, it sheds light on J, but very little on Elena.
Biography is the dullest form of literary criticism, so I won’t dwell too long on the fact that González’ brother Juan did in fact buy a remote plantation where he died, engaged in exactly the sort of quixotic enterprise which J is attempting here. González has said in interviews that he based In the Beginning on that incident and that while the book is fiction it sticks fairly closely to some of the central facts of his brother’s death. I wonder if perhaps J being based on someone González knew so well is why he’s the more persuasive character.
In the end while I thought there was much to admire in In the Beginning, I didn’t love it. González is strong on the physicality of it all, the smells and textures and the cloying heat, but I wish Elena had received the same attention as the descriptions of the rain. The result was that I found Beginning to be a slightly airless book which could have benefitted from a little more warmth and empathy. González’ is carrying out here a near-forensic examination of the whirlpool of circumstance that engulfed his brother, that engulfs J, but the result is better at depicting the indifference of the world than it is at showing the humanity which makes that indifference matter.
I thought there were loads, but so far have only found two. Guy Savage’s excellent review is here, and David Hebblethwaite’s briefer thoughts are here. There’s also an interesting interview with González here. As ever please do feel free to alert me to more in the comments.