‘In the Beginning Was the Sea’ by Tomás González (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 8)

IMG_2040Well, so much for a beach holiday…  Having scurried away from Sweden in search of some relaxation and sun on our IFFP travels, we’ve ended up in Colombia, caught in the middle of a rather tense domestic affair.  While I nip off for a well-deserved siesta, feel free to read today’s review – oh, and you can help yourself to some aguardiente if you fancy a drink to go with it 😉

In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González – Pushkin Press (translated by Frank Wynne, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Elena and J., a young married couple, decide to move from their home in Medellín to a remote community in the north of Colombia, buying a house and land near the sea.  After an arduous journey by bus and boat (in the process of which Elena’s beloved Singer sewing machine suffers some damage…), the couple arrive at their home, one which is rather more dilapidated than they would have liked.

However, the couple soon get to work tidying things up, and J., in particular, soon becomes accustomed to the pace of life in the tropics (even if Elena isn’t all that impressed with his drinking the days away).  Slowly, though, the realities of their new life begin to sink in.  With little money, they are forced to adjust their plans, and soon they are at each other’s throats.  When their faithful foreman is forced to leave them to their own devices, the downward spiral really begins…

In the Beginning Was the Sea is a short work, a story that’s easy (and quick) to read.  An interesting tale of life in the provinces, and of a relationship on the rocks, this is González’s first work available in English and also his debut outing in the original Spanish.  All packaged up for the Anglophone reader by the ubiquitous Frank Wynne (no IFFP longlist seems complete without his fingerprints all over it), it’s a novel(la) most will enjoy.

The focus of the novel is the young couple, building on their progressive ideals and ideas with a move back to nature.  You should always be careful what you wish for, though – Elena and J. soon find that their plan is not all they thought it would be.  It’s all well and good to run away from the pressures and ills of urban society, but life in their coastal idyll brings issues of its own.

Of course, much of that came along with them; they are two very different people.  J. is determined to enjoy the new life, making friends with the locals and quickly becoming a part of the community.  Elena, on the other hand, is haughty and aloof, keeping to herself when possible and making enemies when it’s not.  She’s a woman who prefers to fence herself off, sometimes literally, and the reader suspects that this is a relationship which is unlikely to end well.

Sadly, the truth is even worse than our suspicions.  The real appeal of the story is the hints the writer continually drops of J.’s impending demise:

“Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end.”
(Pushkin Press, 2014)

The end? Now that’s an ominous sign if ever there was one…  These premonitions are repeated at regular intervals, constantly interrupting the mellow mood, and even though the pace of the story is languid and relaxed, there’s always a shadow hanging over our heads.  There’s more than a nod here to another Colombian writer, the late Gabriel García Márquez and his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even if the events are slightly different.

The writing is excellent in places, and most pages throw up some descriptive gems:

“The owner’s name was Juan, a man famous for buying stolen goods.  J. found him simultaneously cynical and obsequious.  He was helped out in the shop by his wife, a languid, overweight, proud woman of about thirty with pale olive skin and a beautiful face.  She exhaled a breath of sensuality like the miasma of a flowering swamp.”

The collection of excellent asides and sketches of the local people make for an amusing, relaxing getimage189-750x1024.aspxread for the most part, yet every so often another of the intimations of J.’s mortality changes the mood somewhat – tick, tock, time is running out…

In the Beginning Was the Sea is another entertaining story from Pushkin Press, almost one for a single sitting.  While we know from the start that matters will end badly for J., if he’s not going to stress about it, then neither should we.  Get yourself a glass of your poison of choice and settle down for a relaxing read – just the one glass, mind 😉

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I don’t think so.  It’s an enjoyable read, and I’m happy to see it on the longlist, but when I compare it to my previous IFFP choice, The Ravens, it looks a little out of its weight class.  Whereas Tomas Bannerhed’s novel could have been the work of a seasoned renowned writer, In the Beginning Was the Sea feels like a starting point of a writer’s career.  There’s nothing wrong with that – I just think González is more likely to make the next stage in future years 🙂

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably not, but you never know with these judges 😉  There have been several worse choices on the shortlist in previous years, let’s put it that way…

Call it poor planning, or a desire to be forever on the road, but after our brief Colombian interlude, we’re heading straight back to Germany for the next stage of the journey.  We’re switching from the coast to the countryside, but the tension is unlikely to lessen – where we’re going, the order of the day is survival of the fittest.  Or of those with long necks 😉

9 thoughts on “‘In the Beginning Was the Sea’ by Tomás González (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 8)

  1. Does sell it to me – and sounds a little like ‘La maison atlantique’ by Philippe Besson, which I’ve just borrowed from the library (although there it’s a father and son rather than a couple who are tearing each other apart). And I look forward to hearing your ‘Giraffe’s Neck’ review.


    1. Marina Sofia – It’s a nice little story, not likely to win, though. As for the Schalansky, that’ll be coming up next week, I believe 🙂


  2. I’m not sure I would call it relaxing and amusing – I found it painted a fairly bleak picture of life (though it depends what relaxes and amuses you, of course!) I can’t help but think it would have benefitted from translation nearer its original publication – the hippy retreat seemed very much of its time and has been satirised to death (often, as here, literally).


    1. Grant – For me, this was a light, entertaining read (which probably says a lot about the kind of books I read!). The key here was the GGM comparison – it overshadowed the whole thing for me.


  3. I rather fancy this one, I’ve read several reviews and it sounds fun (probably the wrong word, but it’ll do). I noted that John Self hated it, I think he called it misogynistic? He seems though an outlier. Any idea what he disliked so much as generally it seems to be pretty well received.


    1. Max – To be honest, if you read Spanish-language (especially Latin-American) literature, you’ll find a lot to criticise if you’re looking for misogyny, but I’m not sure this is any worse than other books I’ve read. It is rather blokey in places as the main character drinks and sleeps around, but if we avoided all books where that happens…


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