In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez
|In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Nikki Thompson
|Summary: A bleak but ultimately intriguing look at a young couple's relationship and their fight against fate.
|Date: July 2014
|Publisher: Pushkin Press
Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015
In the Beginning Was the Sea is the first novel written by Colombian author Tomas Gonzalez. It was written over 30 years ago but the work has only just been translated into English. It tells the story of J. and Elena, two intellectuals who have grown sick of their life of endless parties and highbrow conversations and have decided to move away from the mainland to set up a new life that focuses on nature and the purity of hard work and the elements. They bicker and alienate the locals, and neither of them is prepared for the brutal weather and the microscope that such surroundings put on their less-than-perfect relationship.
Firstly, a word of warning to anyone picking up this book – the main characters are not likeable. They are vain and ungrateful and often unkind. J. is a man who has idealised what life will be like on his remote island with his beautiful, 'copper-skinned' wife and their quaint island shop, and he is bitterly disappointed with the reality. He drinks so much that there is barely anything else to his personality by the end of the novel. Elena, in turn, is beautiful and temperamental and mean. That’s not to say that they aren't compelling characters – they are. Their motivation isn't always clear and their intent is sometimes less than honourable, but they are complex and intriguing.
To begin with, I was not sure about the effectiveness of the translation from the Spanish – the story and the characters initially felt flat and almost lifeless. However, it soon became clear that the words have been chosen with the utmost care to produce the thick, suffocating atmosphere and to convey the starkness of the relationship between J. and Elena and the life they're living. Through the sparse language and the handpicked metaphors, the exotic island that J. and Elena inhabit and the realities of mainland South America come to life.
There are many words I could use to describe this book but I think the one that sums it up most accurately is ‘minimal’. The novel is only 172 pages long which, given the story it tells, is very short. Even the book itself, with its beautiful moonlit cover, is physically small and compact. The descriptions are razor-sharp and the story moves from one emotional turmoil to the next using the least amount of words possible. There is nothing in this book that could be described or flowery or excessive. It is lean and severe but still ultimately artistic. The writing reflects the mood of the book, it doesn't just create it. While that doesn't necessarily make for the most satisfying or enjoyable read, the story lingers with you once you've finished the book; even with its not-very-nice main characters. The more I thought about it once I'd finished reading, the more I thought the translator, Frank Wynne, had done an incredible job.
The novel takes on yet another dimension when you know that the author's brother's life was the inspiration for the novel - J.’s story is Gonzalez' brother Juan's story. And it's not a happy one.
For another example of a wonderful translation and the atmosphere it can create, try A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti and Hortense Carpentier.
You can read more book reviews or buy In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez at Amazon.com.
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