Tomás González - a dramatic and searingly ironic account of the disastrous encounter of intellectual struggle with reality - a satire of hippyism, ecological fantasies, and of the very idea that man can control fate

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea. Trans. by Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press, 2015.

The young intellectuals J. and Elena leave behind their comfortable lives, the parties and the money in Medellín to settle down on a remote island. Their plan is to lead the Good Life, self-sufficient and close to nature. But from the very start, each day brings small defeats and imperceptible dramas, which gradually turn paradise into hell, as their surroundings inexorably claim back every inch of the 'civilisation' they brought with them. Based on a true story, In the Beginning Was the Sea is a dramatic and searingly ironic account of the disastrous encounter of intellectual struggle with reality - a satire of hippyism, ecological fantasies, and of the very idea that man can control fate.
Pushkin Collection editions feature a spare, elegant series style and superior, durable components. The Collection is typeset in Monotype Baskerville, litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow. The covers, with French flaps, are printed on Colorplan Pristine White Paper. Both paper and cover board are acid-free and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

"Eight years ago, González was branded 'the best-kept secret of Colombian literature' . . . He has since become one of his country's foremost novelists, and In the Beginning Was the Sea – this taut, uncompromising study of the faultlines in all of us – is earning a wide readership. Perhaps it's time to call him something else." — The Guardian

"Gonzalez poetically and comically captures the inevitable destruction of those who live in a world of fantasy and hubris, depicting beauty and despair by turns." — Publishers Weekly

"What makes the characters so recognizable, so uncomfortable and so relevant, particularly in today's hipster-dominated culture, is how their intent to live consciously is thwarted by an utter lack of self-awareness. . . The strength of description, and the menacing tone that runs beneath 'In the Beginning Was the Sea,' however, are ultimately what give the slim novel its haunting power." — The Chicago Tribune

"González impresses with his enactment of initial dream and subsequent nightmare. His tropical idyll is expertly depicted through a succession of richly conveyed sights and sounds… Based on a true story, 'In the Beginning Was the Sea' is a gripping cautionary tale about how hard, cruel reality sooner or later impinges upon our seemingly imperishable fantasies. It is González’s first book to be published in English. If this is a measure of what he is capable of, with luck there will be many more." The Star Tribune

"Aided by a devastatingly evocative translation from Frank Wynne and armed with the skill of a master storyteller, over the course of 200 some odd pages Gonzalez constructs a chilling, brilliantly plotted tale . . . From the very beginning the author, and his translator, transport the reader into a scintillating, unsettling dreamlike world where every sentence comes to life in vibrant detail." — Typographical Era

"[T]he novel leaves its mark… the arresting prose and complex characters shine." — Kirkus Reviews

"Colombian novelist González tells a common story with uncommon economy […] For readers following J's fantasies and hopes, it is impossible not to think of Kafka's K […] González’s work has been translated into six languages, but this is his first book to appear in English, an auspicious beginning." — Booklist
In the Beginning Was the Sea is not a usual first novel. For one thing, it was published by a nightclub (where its author worked as a barman). The year was 1983. Since then, González, born in 1950, has published six other novels, and here is the next unusual fact about his first one: everything is already there. Most writers take a few years, even a few decades, to discover a voice and settle into it, to master the intricacies of structure and imagery that will allow them best to give literary shape to their obsessions; but González's last two novels, La luz difícil and Tempestad –both hailed as quiet masterpieces at the time of their publication in Colombia – provide as much literary satisfaction as In the Beginning Was the Sea. Through all his work you find the peaceful writing that admirably traces the ugliness of the world; the confidence of the narrative voice, seemingly conventional while eschewing the straitjackets of realism; and the all-pervading violence that informs every situation and eventually explodes.
Elena and J., a couple in their 30s, travel from Medellín, the big provincial capital in the Andes, to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. They have bought a run-down house surrounded by the sea, but also by local poverty and vast unproductive estates. The plan, at the beginning, is quite straightforward: to escape urban life, its crass materialism, its pretence and snobbery, "to move out to the sea and enjoy life, buy a little boat for fishing, a few cows, a few chickens". Needless to say, things don't work out like that.
There are rules in the new world that Elena and J. don't understand; there are underlying tensions that sour their relationship; and then there is something we can only call hubris. J. is that overly familiar character, an intellectual looking for real life and finding that real life was not, strictly speaking, looking for him; Elena is a strong-willed, practical-minded woman who doesn't have time for compromise, or idealism, or understanding others. Yes, personal reinvention is a dangerous game, and the reader soon discovers – through a narrator who knows more than his characters do and enjoys spoilers – that the whole project will eventually end in outright failure.
In the Beginning Was the Sea is, among other things, the chronicle of that failure foretold. In shape, it is tragic: exactly halfway through the novel González gives voice to an acquaintance of Elena and J.'s who speaks from the future, from a moment when everything has already happened. He has harsh words about J. and "the whole highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie". Mercilessly, he concludes: "It's astonishing he reached the age of thirty-four." We realise then that many hints of the outcome have been dropped from the very first pages of the novel; we realise, too, that González cares little for suspense: he wants us to read with the outcome in mind, so that we can pay attention to the process of decomposition, to the minute choices the characters make. All of which, in light of what will eventually happen, takes on a new significance.
González is a keen reader of the literature of the American south: Carson McCullers is here, and so is the tragic vision of Flannery O'Connor, as well as her love of foreshadowing. But he is also in debt to his Latin American forefathers. In his fondness for squalor and defeat, the reader will find echoes of Juan Carlos Onetti; in his spare but evocative prose we sense the presence, at the same time predictable and entirely surprising, of the early works of Gabriel García Márquez. Stories such as "There Are No Thieves in This Town" or the 1962 novel In Evil Hour reverberate in González's prose, in his mysterious ability to uplift the commonplace and turn it into unforgettable images through careful observation and sensuous detail. I will never forget the sound of the claws tinkling against the tin as crab stew is being cooked; or how Elena, in a moment of anger, hurls a book "which fluttered across the shop like a crazed chicken". When a character walks on mud, González takes the time to notice "the sucking sound" his feet make. Translator Frank Wynne, who has recently published a wonderful rendition of González's Colombian contemporary Andrés Caicedo, is responsible for yet another flawless job: his ear is well attuned to the idiosyncrasies of González's dialogue, and the novel's shy poetry loses nothing in his version.
Eight years ago, González was branded "the best-kept secret of Colombian literature" by a literary magazine. He has since become one of his country's foremost novelists, and In the Beginning Was the Sea – this taut, uncompromising study of the faultlines in all of us – is earning a wide readership. Perhaps it's time to call him something else. - Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Colombian novelist Tomás González is taken pretty seriously by Spanish-reading audiences. His peripatetic existence – as a barman in Bogota, a translator in New York and Miami – has resulted in seven novels, two story collections and a volume of poetry that have admirers like Elfriede Jelinek describing him as "a classic of Latin American literature", with others whispering about Nobel prizes.

In the Beginning Was the Sea is González's debut, which has taken over 30 years to arrive in English translation. The story behind this odd, rather haunting book is almost as intriguing as the one contained within. In the mid-1970s, González's brother Juan and his girlfriend swapped a life of intellectual partying for an emotionally and environmentally sustainable life on a remote island. Their hippy idealism – or hippy naivety – ended in disaster: Juan was murdered by a man he had hired to manage their finca (estate).
In the fictional recasting, Juan becomes J, an aimless dreamer with a fondness for big ideas, bad art, hot women and, when all else fails, staring at the ocean. His girlfriend is the fearsome Elena, who teases the locals with her bikini-clad lissomness before terrifying them with her simmering temper. The narrative shape is that of a paradise quickly gained and easily lost. J and Elena's innocence is captured in the title which is itself drawn from Kogi cosmology. This lyrical but vague philosophy is present in a story that is heavy on fate and light on context for J and Elena's escapism. The resulting mood is hallucinatory. Events wriggle and slip from J's booze-weakened grasp almost without his agency. He is swindled out of his money. His cattle die as quickly as they are born. Even a principled stance not to touch a tree on his land is jettisoned by financial necessity.
For González, J and Elena's disintegration flows from their betrayal of fundamental human and natural laws: treating people and places with indifference or contempt. The tragic consequences that follow this transgression seem inexorable enough to feel pre-destined – perhaps because González knew only too well how doomed this tilt at windmills had already proved. He is even better at creating ominous atmospheres. A tour de force description of the rainy season and the lassitude it engenders in J is extraordinarily evocative and wonderfully rendered by translator Frank Wynne. Nature proves to be perpetually glorious and terrifying. J is enraptured by an unmoving iguana, only to realise later that it was already dead. He salivates over a crab stew, but hears "claws tinkling against the tin".
It feels slightly strange to judge González by this short first novel rendered into a foreign tongue. While their descent into failure is never less than gripping, neither J nor Elena prove especially likeable or sympathetic. This may well be a bold critique of their microcosmic act of colonisation, their disregard for people, lives and ideas bigger than themselves, but it does make you tire of their moodiness, discourtesy and ineffectiveness.
Nevertheless, the simple, incantatory power of the prose suggests that González may well be the talent many are claiming him to be – one ready to fill the void left by the death of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This small novel asks big questions without providing simple answers. Or, as J puts it: "Everything is so fucking difficult and so fucking beautiful." - James Kidd

The small publisher Pushkin Press has a strong record of unearthing foreign gems that haven’t yet made it into English. Its latest offering is a 1983 debut novel from a Colombian writer, Tomás González, who imagines the last days of his brother, Juan, or J, who in 1977 was shot dead on a farm in the north of the country.
As a memorial, it’s strikingly unsentimental, with little by way of lament.
J is a young hippy leaving his home city of Medellín for a simpler life on the coast with his lover Elena. The atmospheric opening chapters evoke the scruffiness of their trek by bus and boat, as they eat fried fish from roadside stalls and drink cheap spirits in bars “that smelt like urinals where pot-bellied men sat steeping their endless entrails in the golden glow of beer”.
J’s plan to live off the fat of the land leads him rashly to buy up two farms. He drinks too much; he and Elena run out of money and fight. Disobedient workers compel him to employ a manager, Octavio, who proves his final undoing.
González writes from J’s point of view but also stands above the action, announcing what lies in store for J and judging his “inchoate and confused revolt against culture” with all the scepticism one might expect from an older sibling.
In the middle of the novel there’s an excerpt from a letter written by J’s brother – let’s call him T – which establishes their mutual affection while revealing a rift that opened up between them when “he accused me of becoming pretentious after I moved to Bogotá” (where, as the novel’s author blurb states, González studied philosophy).
González was 26 when the real Juan died. At the time he was trying to make his way as a writer and he has been candid in interviews about his use of the killing as a means to fulfil his literary aspirations. “I studied it coldly,” he has said, “as a craftsman might study a fallen tree and calculate the size and shape of the canoe that might be made from it.”
J, as an arrogant meddler out of his depth, comes across like a figure out of Joseph Conrad. Now and then you wonder if González’s tone would be less ominous or lordly had he let in a little more emotion. “They were surprisingly happy days. Among the last happy days they would spend together,” runs a fairly typical line. Even so, this is a sad story, well told, and it reads smoothly in Frank Wynne’s lively translation.
Not exactly a novel to enjoy, but it is certainly one that lingers. -


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