In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González
In the Beginning was the Sea (translated by Frank Wynne)
Pushkin Press, paperback, 172 pages,
What happens when you transplant two city-dwelling intellectuals from their home in Medellín, Colombia, to a decaying mansion by the sea? In what feels, at times, like the narrative of a fascinating sociological experiment, In the Beginning was the Sea documents the lives of J. and Elena as they make the transition from urban cityscape to rural wilderness in a gung ho attempt to escape ‘the parties, the drinking and the money of the city’. Tomás González writes with descriptive beauty and subtle irony, contrasting the dream of ‘a peaceful life by the sea’ with the reality of subsistence living at the mercy of the elements. The wild splendour of the couple’s surroundings is offset by the grotesque lackeys and labourers whom González describes with an almost Dickensian flair. The structure of the novel itself is distinctly postmodern, the fragmented narrative mirroring both the breakdown of J. and Elena’s relationship and their individual psyches as they are put to the test by their new environment.
The book’s title and epigraph are taken from the ancient cosmology of Colombia’s Kogi tribe, a creationist tale that paints the sea as ‘the Mother’, in line with the Kogi belief that humanity should live as the children of the earth. However, González’s novel reveals J. and Elena’s inability to adhere to this ethos, with J.’s dream of wanting things to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ on his land echoing God’s words in Genesis and implicitly portraying J. as an aspiring patriarchal demi-deity. González’s creationist references continue as he describes J.’s awe at a large mango tree on his land that is ‘exactly how I pictured the tree in the Garden of Eden’; but while the land may seem Eden-like to J., his reference to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil only emphasises J.’s status as a knowledgeable intellectual who is therefore incapable of living in a prelapsarian state of innocence.
González continues to explore such conflicts through a series of ironies, including the imagery of Nietzsche and Camus wrestling for space on J.’s bookshelf alongside books on coconut farming and animal husbandry. Other noteworthy episodes include J.’s ranting about his ‘bourgeois’ intellectual guests before launching into a monologue on how, when his journal is full, he will throw it down the lavatory where it can ‘moulder away inside this house, rot down to its basic elements – gases, ephemeral organisms, mulch, vegetation. Such is the humble, commonplace transubstantiation of all things…’ These moments of amusing hypocrisy perfectly capture the universal dilemma of the academic who is aware of their own pretensions yet cannot escape them; as one fictional observer laments: ‘what with the whole highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie could never have survived’.
As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that J. and Elena are less concerned with a change in scenery than they are with an escape from humanity and from their former selves. Later chapters see J. drunkenly ranting about how ‘the human being is a piece of shit’ as his life spirals out of control and his days become an ‘endless cycle of light and shadows… akin to sailing rudderless across unchartered seas’. It is in these later chapters that the novel comes into its own, with any feelings of smug condescension or casual scorn on the reader’s part being replaced by a deeper sense of pathos and empathy. We come to understand that J. and Elena’s retreat to the sea represents a willing surrender, a resignation from life rather than an attempt to start a new one. The couple’s life becomes a kind of subconscious suicide, in a deceptive paradise where ‘the swamps smell slightly of decay, of life and death, of a place where both meet’.