Imagining a life lost: In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González

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.

seaIn 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.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

10 thoughts on “Imagining a life lost: In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González”

  1. I agree with your comments about Elena – there seems to be a deliberate choice to avoid back story, presumably to further intensify the present. I’m not sure I was so enthusiastic about the final lines – they seemed to be consciously aiming for that Great Gatsby moment but quiet at odds with the rest of the novel.

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    1. I found it an odd book to engage with, but I liked the surreal quality of the ending. And I am not a Great Gatsby fan. I think that it was just the moment during which it felt like a memorial rather than a cold dissection of a real life lost.

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  2. I’m still deciding whether or not to read this one. It sounds intriguing, and I’m curious about the ending (especially given your comments and discussion with Grant), but the lack of backstory might be a little frustrating. Hmm, one to consider.

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    1. The ending redeemed the book for me, but I would not consider this as one of the top of the IFFP offerings. It is so dispassionate. Mind you it was his first novel and he makes no bones about the clinical approach he took to trying to envision his brother’s death. He manages to recreate the experience beautifully but the reasons are not fleshed out. I certainly would like to read one of his more mature works should this attention lead more into translation.

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  3. Nobody seems to find it a top offering, but I’ve only seen one really negative reaction so far (John Self on twitter, he hated it). It’s a probably read for me, but not an immediate or pressing probably read.

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    1. Some people really loved this book. I found the lack of context for the miserable nature of the relationship between the main characters to be a definite problem. I would not consider it an urgent read myself.

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  4. I just posted my review of this and I must say I’m in the really loved it camp. I think the lack of context for the relationship bothered me less because I felt that I had seen very similar relationships in the real world – it felt entirely believable to me even without knowing their past. This was my first read off the IFFP shortlist and if the others are – as everyone seems to say – better books, I’m excited.

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