Dark, cautionary tale of deepest Colombia: In The Beginning Was The Sea
Review: A pitch-perfect translation adds to the Patricia Highsmith-like menace of this debut novel
Tomás González: the genius of the Colombian writer’s book In The Beginning Was The Sea lies lies in the telling. Photograph: Juan Carlos Sierra
In The Beginning Was The Sea
Tomás González, (translated by Frank Wynne)
A couple decide to make a stand, reject the idle life lived by their fellow intellectuals and instead commit themselves to nature, on a secluded finca, or estate, in coastal Colombia. Austere and determined, they appear, at least initially, to be a righteous pair; he, known as J, with his books, and she, Elena, who is bringing her Singer sewing machine. The journey there is tough, and endless, in hot, dusty conditions, complete with other passengers, some of whom are carrying “bewildered chickens”.
The opening pages of this odd and smoothly intriguing narrative, with its touches of sinister, Patricia Highsmith-like menace, read as if written for the screen. The book itself has a story. Written in the early 1980s, it was Colombian writer Tomás González’s first novel and it was published in 1983 by the owner of the Bogotá nightclub in which González was then working. Now, just over 30 years later, it appears for the first time in English, in a brilliantly laconic, sophisticated translation by Sligo-born, London-based Frank Wynne who, ever alert to every surreal nuance, conveys the disturbing humour with the panache of a master.
Early in the story González makes inspired use of an old sewing machine. Referring to it as the sole relic of Elena’s first marriage, he writes that it had spent almost 20 hours strapped to the roof of the bus. Elena cautions the youth who is about to unload it. “The wooden case that housed the mechanism was wrapped with cardboard boxes held in place with packing tape and twine: the feet and pedal were exposed.”
What comes next is only to be expected. “It tumbled to the ground with a dull clatter.” Elena’s outraged reaction is the first of many that will dominate a fast moving narrative that tends to focus upon the nastier aspects of human behaviour, particularly hers. After unleashing “a torrent of hurried, confused abuse” she then composes herself, “choosing her insults with silky venom.” The boy remains unperturbed: “It ain’t my fault,” he shrugs.
Elena storms into the shipping office to make a complaint, informing the man in charge that the company is rubbish. He merely agrees.
It is a clever book, shrouded in irony. González gives away little and does not believe in larding the text with description; his use of detail is minimal, if invariably telling. Although it is obvious that Elena is beautiful, what is even more apparent is her vicious temper. She emerges as angry and possibly unstable. Her aggression is indiscriminate and it provides the narrative with a striking dynamic. It is as if everyone, the reader as well as the locals and J, who appears far more passive if equally unhinged, tensely await her next outburst.