For aspiring novelists, the greatest inspiration sometimes lies very close to home – at the heart of their own families. And most often, it is not a happy circumstance they are seeking to reconcile when setting pen to paper.
In the late 1970s Colombian author Tomás González was struggling to build a career for himself as a writer. The murder of his brother Juan, on a farm where he had retreated to find a refuge, would provide the central focus of his debut novel In the Beginning was the Sea, first published in 1983, but not released in English until 2014.
There is a distinctly sober, calculated tone to this tale of J. and his girlfriend Elena, two faded hippies who seek to escape a life of drugs, alcohol, and partying in Medellín by purchasing and moving to a remote tropical farm. J. dreams of a simpler life, a new beginning. It soon becomes clear that he has absolutely no business sense at all. He repeatedly allows himself to be swindled and makes a series of reckless investments. As his debts mount, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to dig himself in deeper, disregarding the warnings of those around him. To add insult to injury, Elena and J. have a volatile relationship at best – one that the isolation of their new home does nothing to mediate. She tends to be caustic and unpleasant, especially to the native blacks who work for her or live in the area. The dislike is instantly reciprocated. J. is much more affable with the locals, a nature lubricated by increasingly copious quantities of cheap alcohol. But as time goes on, his world continues to spiral downward. In the end, as we are repeatedly warned, it will cost him his life.
As the story unfolds, González maintains an emotional distance from his subjects, but he excels at bringing the tropical farm to life. His language is highly evocative.
“Smells. The murky smell of the mangrove swamps carried sometimes on the breeze. The musky, resinous smell of crabs, dead and still raw. The smell of paddocks pounded by the immovable hammer of the noonday sun. The smell of mingled smoke and coffee from the kitchen. The lunchtime smell of fried fish, fried plantains, the heavy scent of
coconut rice. The smell of the suntan lotions and the moisturizers that made Elena’s skin more perfect.”
If there is a weakness here, it is the lack of a solid reference for the hostile and unpleasant behaviour Elena demonstrates throughout this novel. From the opening scenes where her precious sewing machine is damaged, we see a woman who refuses to tolerate any perceived incompetence in others. One is left to wonder what is behind this and what she ever saw in J. A history of divorce and depression is hinted at. His weaknesses are examined a little more closely and we know that he is torn between attraction and frustration with Elena, and that he harbours a deep personal sense of despair and failure. But again, the why’s are never fully explored.
Though some factors or circumstances may, in truth, defy full explanation; In the Beginning was the Sea does draw to a close with an imaginative and heartbreaking elegy, perhaps the one of the finest moments in the entire book.
Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Pushkin Press deserves to be praised for bringing long ignored works and authors to an English speaking audience. Frank Wynne’s translation is clear and vivid. I hope we will see some of González’s more mature work available in the future.