“Everything is so fucking difficult and so fucking beautiful,”

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.

Other reviews

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.


Filed under Colombian fiction, González, Tomás, Pushkin Press, South-American fiction

17 responses to ““Everything is so fucking difficult and so fucking beautiful,”

  1. Forgot to add, this was a review copy. Since I ultimately didn’t hugely like it though it’s probably fair to say that didn’t influence me too much.

  2. Looking back at my own review, it seems the ‘airlessness’ was what made me appreciate the book more (albeit not that much overall) on a second reading…

    I can point you towards some reviews of the book by other members of the shadow IFFP jury. (This will test my ability to put links in comments…):

    Tony’s Reading List
    Messenger’s Booker
    The Globally Curious
    Never Stop Reading
    A Little Blog of Books
    Dolce Bellezza

  3. I looked at Tony’s blog and didn’t see it. Thanks! I see he chose one of the same quotes as me, always reassuring.

    1st’s was the other review I was sure I’d read, but couldn’t recall where. I really wanted to link to it as I remembered the content but when you can’t find it…

    It doesn’t sound like I’m a mile of others. There don’t seem to be many thinking it should have won the IFFP, and my sense that the description was stronger than the characterisation seems a fairly common reaction.

  4. Jonathan

    I really love that cover as well. I’ve read a couple of other reviews and this book really appeals to me. It reminds me of city dwellers who move to the country and then complain about the smells, the mud, the locals etc.

  5. That’s exactly what it is Jonathan, in part at least. They move to the country and discover it isn’t what they imagined it to be, and hate it for what it is. They’re poverty tourists and their dream may be clothed in philosophy and politics but at its heart it’s still colonial.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    The cover is beautiful, but I don’t know about the contents. The fact that Elena is so undercharacterised is going to be frustrating, especially with such a potentially interesting subject.

  7. I didn’t mind the lack of warmth & empathy–in fact that’s one of the things that appealed. When people go off on these quests for utopia, while they remain individuals, they start preaching like the newly converted. There’s a sameness there. Plus distancing never hurts when characters come to a bad end.

  8. That was my issue, as you’ve seen above. Reading the other reviews it seems a lot of people liked it, but not so many loved it.

  9. How did you find Elena as a character Guy? I thought he was better on setting than characters.

  10. Interesting review, Max. I remember reading two or three other reviews of this (Guy’s, Grant’s/1streading’s and rough’s) and thinking it wouldn’t be my kind of book. I wasn’t overly keen on the premise, but the thing that really put me off was Elena’s character. I just thought I would find her frustrating/annoying. Happy to pass on it, especially given your reservations.

  11. I remember reading Guy’s review. Sorry you didn’t like it.
    The cover reminds me of a painting by Le Douanier Rousseau painted Klein’s blue.

  12. I liked it for exactly those reasons: its lack of warmth and empathy. These two characters are types in the way, like many others before them, who set off in order to accomplish some fantasy. It makes what happens to them easier to bear when they become statistics.
    Elena… I thought she was the one who was going to come to a bad end–all that stuff about fences… This was J’s gig from the beginning. She was just along, begrudgingly, for the ride.

  13. I see you got my review. I remember thinking it just lacked a certain chemistry between characters. Even hostility or emotional distance between characters has to ring true. I felt he was too focused on the end (which is never hidden and based on a real event in his life) that he failed to make a realistic journey from the beginning to that end. It was a first novel though with enough promise that I would be curious to read a later work should one see translation.

  14. Jacqui, I think Guy liked it most from that grouping. My reaction looking back now to other reviews is quite close to Grant and Rough’s.

    Emma, I’ll google the painting. Do you think you’ll read it?

    Guy, you’re right about types, though I think in part J surpasses that (perhaps because of that letter from the brother). I might have liked it more if he had been a little more archetypal. Still, we can’t always like things to the same extent and it would be dull if we did.

    Rough, yes, very similar reactions I think. I saw you focused too on the success of the description/evocation, the feel of the place, but also on the relative underdevelopment of Elena. Still, while I’m fairly critical here it was worth reading and I’m not surprised it made a prize list. There’s enough meat on the bones for it to be worth criticising if that makes sense.

  15. Max, if I may say so, you do a nice job of writing about books you aren’t entirely convinced by. 🙂

    You’ve written that Elena’s motivations are not fully explored. What about J.’s, though? You’ve made references to the Thoreauvian dream, as well as to “anarcho-leftism” via the bother’s letter, but I would’ve they are two rather different things, isn’t it? After reading the review, I’m not sure I’ve understood why they’ve moved to Bogota – but maybe that ambiguity is written into the novel?

    Also, is J.’s character complex or reflective enough to enable him to take an external view of his own actions, and even engage in the odd bout of self-critique?

  16. Thanks! J’s aren’t fully explored, and certainly there’s no self-critique (if there were he probably wouldn’t be in such a mess, self-examination isn’t a big feature here). It’s more that there’s enough hints that you get a decent sense of his motivations. It’s idealistic stuff though, a romanticised sense of a more authentic life than that of an urban intellectual, a certain back-to-the-land left wing sensibility, but you don’t get the impression it’s a well thought through philosophy. Again, if he’d thought things through well he wouldn’t be in quite such a disastrous situation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s