In The Beginning Was The Sea – Tomas Gonzalez (translated by Frank Wynne) – 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

I’ve travelled to quite a few countries in my world literature journey, however I do believe this is the first time I’ve stopped off in Columbia, if I’ve been here before the work didn’t leave much of a lasting impression upon me. “In The Beginning Was The Sea” is Tomas Gonzalez’s first novel, written whilst he was a barman in a Bogota nightclub, it was originally published by the bar’s owner in 1983. Although Gonzalez lived in the USA for twenty years this is his first work to be published in English and he has now returned to live in his native Columbia.
Our story focuses on two “hippies”, who decide to leave the bustle of the city behind and move to a remote island and become self-sufficient. Our couple are Elena and J and our book begins with a bus trip towards a fetid shoreline village, includes a broken sewing machine and leads to a trip to the island by a drunken local. Our language elicits the coastline of Columbia, however the romanticism is totally destroyed by the descriptions of the rusty cars, discarded oil cans and pot-bellied locals.
As an observer of Elena and J’s world we can see that we are in for a stormy ride right from the beginning, their dream is not a reality.
The rains came and so began the first of the two winters J. would spend on the finca; the first of his last two winters on earth.
Thick grey clouds massed over the sea, lending it a mournful, boundless beauty. Before the first drops fell, the sun would slip through a chink in the clouds spilling showers of light over the dark waters. Lightening shattered the skies with a thunderous boom as gulls shrieked high in the heavens. Then the clouds merged and fat raindrops chimed like pebbles on the corrugated iron roof, heralding torrential downpours that seemed to last forever. The muggy heat that preceded the cloudbursts would give way to a bleak, dusky coolness as the leaden outlines of the clouds melted until it seemed as though the land and the waters had merged again and the darkness was one with the light. Sometimes it was possible to hear above the raging elements the muffled purr of a boat, its blurred outline barely visible out at sea.
As their stock begins to die or go missing, as Elena pushes back against the locals and as their meagre funds dry up, our idyllic couple’s relationship strains even further. Desperate plans to find an alternative source of income, Elena’s hatred of not being able to swim without disturbance, and relationships with the locals brings our couple towards their only concept of escape….alcohol. The world of endless senseless partying and consumerism again has them in its grip.
When J. got to his feet, dizzy and reeling from the drink, the woman slipped under his arm. Together, they disappeared behind a low curtain while Julio watched, his face flushed. An hour later, the madam – an ageing malicious old shrew decked out with tinkling bracelets and thick makeup – came and told Julio to take his friend home as he was drunk and had fallen asleep in the bedroom. Julito work J. up as best he could, helped him outside and took him back to his house.
Four days later, when he arrived back at the finca, J. saw that there was a new barbed-wire fence encircling almost a thousand square metres of land and a small strip of sea. Running from a stake planted in the sea, five strands of razor wire were strung across the beach, the barbed wire snaking through two hundred metres of forest and then back across the beach where it was nailed to another stake embedded in the water, completely sealing off the little cover where Elena went swimming.
This novel is written in a style where we, the readers, are clinically distanced from the events that unfold, whilst already knowing the tragic outcome, but need to continue our journey to know how those events transpire. Apparently “J.”, one of the two protagonists in this work, is based on Tomas’ brother Juan and his tragic life. I was intrigued to find this out as this work is quite clinical in the descriptions of the facts and very much removed from the sentimentality that you would generally find in a biographical work.
Personally I found this an easy read, however the connection to the characters was difficult as the matter-of-fact style didn’t allow me to meld into their world. This is a work which explores fate, desperation and the power of nature over all well made plans. Whilst a tragic tale it also explores the themes of relationships, responsibility and love. Whilst this could have been a romantic tale, with a connection to nature with a tragic ending, the style dictates that the dark side is bubbling alongside and isn’t far away from any celebration or joy.

Personally I preferred other works on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist and was surprised when it made the official shortlist as some of the mixture of styles (for example, a diary appears for a very short period). Another Pushkin Press work from their “Pushkin Collection”, (I have previously reviewed three works by Yasushi Inoue and one by Paul Fournel from this collection), it is beautifully designed and hand stitched by an independent printer on acid free paper, it is one of those joys to hold. A book for lovers of books.

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