In the Beginning Was the Sea is Columbian author Tomas Gonzalez’s first novel, originally published in 1983, and the first to be translated into a spare, incisive English by Frank Wynne. The dream of its protagonists, Elena and J, to escape urban life in Medellin for a self-sufficient existence on the land, however, is one that continues to fascinate to this day. Hints that they are perhaps not entirely prepared for this new life arrive early: Elena has brought with her a sewing machine – a remnant of her first marriage (one of very few facts we learn about their lives before) – which is broken on the journey; J a trunk full of books. Character flaws are also foreshadowed: Elena’s furious reaction to the sewing machine’s damage; J drinking with the boatman on the journey to the run-down house they have bought. Their optimism remains intact, however, Elena cleaning the house in a “frenetic whirl of activity” and J observing:
“It’s exactly how I pictured the tree in the Garden of Eden.”
Gonzalez has other ideas, quickly revealing that all will not end well:
“The other bedroom, where they would later set up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed, was completely empty.”
From this point on, every action is loaded with foreboding.
J and Elena’s troubles really begin when J loses all his savings, which he had asked a relative to invest. Gonzalez goes out of his way to make clear that J should bear the blame for this, in another of the very brief glimpses we get of their life before they moved to the coast:
“The man had a chequered history – something J knew, but managed to overlook – and more than once he had been sued for breach of trust. There were rumours that he was a professional swindler. But J ignored such stories.”
This is a key moment in the novel, as J realises he must attempt to make money from his land immediately rather than having time to plant and plan ahead; however, so heavy-handed is the description of the man he entrusted with his life savings that it’s difficult to retain much sympathy for him. Elena is, likewise, an unsympathetic character. She distrusts and dislikes all of the local people and has a ferocious temper:
“J knew that when Elena was in a rage, nothing and no one could calm her down; the only thing to do was wait it out until her anger, like a volcano, subsided.”
Her antipathy reaches a peak when she encircles their beach in barbed wire to prevent the local people walking across it. When J begins logging the trees on his plantation in order to raise capital it seems as if his dream of an idyllic existence in the country has died. The novel becomes a catalogue of their misfortunes, with happier moments harder and harder to come by. Their relationship is increasingly strained and, though the death may be difficult you predict, a happy ending is unlikely.
The novel’s title, with its Biblical echoes, refers to the final lines, where (if this was a film) the camera pans out to the waves as the credits roll:
“In the beginning was the sea…The sea was everywhere and everything. The sea was Mother. The Mother was not a woman, nor a thing, nor nothingness. She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory.”
While I can’t claim to understand this, it is quite effective in a novel that has up to this point been very careful to avoid abstraction. It certainly conveys a sense of the sea outlasting human endeavour – and in particular the hubris of J. This unchanging nature is reflected in the novel’s characters too – neither J nor Elena can adapt to their new life; the local people cannot adapt to them. The death itself, it could be argued, arises from a refusal to change, or accept change.
In the Beginning Was the Sea is an intense, claustrophobic novel which keeps the reader at arm’s length from its characters, perhaps reflecting the displacement Elena and J feel. Its story is intentionally predictable, but lacks much in the way of psychological insight to balance the fact that we know where we are heading. How you respond to it may depend on how you respond to Gonzalez’s pessimistic vision.