This review was first published in the Chicago Tribune.
"In the Beginning Was the Sea" by Tomás González is a deeply unsettling examination of consumerism and its effects on the sleepy but stunning coast of northwestern Colombia. Originally published more than 30 years ago by the Bogotá nightclub where González worked as a bouncer, the novel is the first of González's books to be translated into English. González has been championed by literary magazines and Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, who said the author has "the potential to become a classic of Latin American literature."
"In the Beginning Was the Sea" is set in the mid-'70s and follows J. and Elena as they move to an estate near Severá, a beautiful beach town several hours' bus ride from Medellín, in the south of Antioquia. The formerly cocaine-ingesting and alcohol-bingeing couple plan on escaping "the whole highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullsh—, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie" by living a quiet life filled with sewing, fishing and raising chickens.
When the couple arrives at the estate, or finca, however, the house, although a "wooden mansion," is run-down, filled with junk and without running water. By contrast, the finca's surroundings, richly and sensuously rendered by González and Spanish-language translator Frank Wynne, burst with images of fecundity. Beyond the plantation, the coastline is "curved into a pair of claws to create a sweeping natural harbour," and everywhere the couple goes there are mangoes, papayas, melons and guanábanas.
A poor financial investment quickly requires J. and Elena to turn the finca into a shop, and later, a timber business, decisions that agitate the already simmering tension between the couple as well as with the locals they employ in and around the plantation. "He had come here in order to escape a demeaning form of rationality that was as sterile as crude oil, as social climbing as bitumen," J. thinks after a contested timber shipment sells for less money than he had hoped. But it's difficult to escape such malaise when they've brought it with them.
J. and Elena rarely express vulnerability or insight. Although the characters are clearly stand-ins for capitalism and colonialism, whose insidious presence gradually overtakes the narrative, the opacity of the couple's thoughts and actions makes it difficult for readers to access their point of view. While J., whose fate drives the novel, feels anxiety and sorrow over the choices that eventually lead to the destruction of the environment, Elena is intolerable, accusing staff of breaking her sewing machine, swearing for no reason at the placid locals, and cordoning off the beach where she swims so the locals don't stare at her like "some sort of exotic animal."
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. J. and Elena are part of an intellectual class who are astute enough to understand that they don't belong here, and yet they treat the local population and environment — the very things they claim to embrace to free themselves from their past lives — with contempt.
According to the publisher's website, González wrote the book to deal with the death of his brother, Juan, who, in the 1970s, was murdered at his finca-like property in Urabá. Like J., González's brother had moved to the coast with his girlfriend with the idealistic notion of escaping the city. He was later shot by his overseer. "Part of me felt a pain which at times was unbearable, while the other part was coldly considering the facts, like someone looking at a fallen tree who assesses the size of the canoe he can extract from it," González writes.
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. "All was in darkness," González laments in the final passage of "In the Beginning Was the Sea," as J.'s body is returned to the sea. But it's darkness no longer for González; for the English-speaking world, this novel is merely a taste of what is to come.