Review: In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez

It was the physicality of Tomas Gonzalez’s novel that first made me pick up In the Beginning Was the Sea  in a London bookstore. It’s a Pushkin Collection edition, smaller than the conventional book size and with an elegant, tactile cover with French flaps. The biography at the back of the book provided a level of intrigue: “He (Gonzalez) studied Philosophy before becoming a barman in a Bogota nightclub, whose owner published In the Beginning Was the Sea, his first novel …” Bar owner as publisher?

Jaded intellectuals, J and Elena, abandon their middle-class existence in Medellin for a self-sufficient existence on an isolated finca on Colombia’s tropical coast. From the first steps of their journey J is cosseted by the warm embrace of the dreamer.Elena, though complaining and contemptuous almost from the first step, remains inexplicably compliant with their plan.

But there is nothing idyllic about their new life. Easily cheated of his inheritance J is soon in financial trouble, having to borrow just to keep his head above water, then resorting to harvesting the trees he had at first so admired and promised to protect. His cattle die or disappear as quickly as new ones are born; yet still he remains strangely contented with his new lot.

As his and Elena’s relationship becomes more strained, and her open contempt for the people, the landscape and her life grows, he increasingly escapes into the community and the balm of bottles of aguardiente. If he sees danger, he does not recognise it.

In the Beginning Was the Sea is a strangely hypnotic book despite the fact that neither J nor Elena is really a sympathetic character. Gonzalez’s sparse prose turns even the squalid into something out of the ordinary and almost right from the start he creates an air of impending doom that hangs over each page, as visceral as the leaden tropical sky waiting for a storm to break.

Loosely based on the life of his brother Juan,  In the Beginning Was the Sea was Gonzalez’s first novel, published in 1983, but has only recently been translated into English. In the meantime, he has published another six highly acclaimed novels. This is an exciting addition to some powerful novels increasingly becoming available to countries outside South America.

In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzales is published by Pushkin Collection.


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