Cbr15passport books from different countries (Colombia)
I learned about this short novel from a NYT “By the Book” interview with Patricia Engel. When asked about a great book that no one seems to know about, she mentioned Tomas Gonzalez’s In the Beginning Was the Sea (published in 1983, English translation in 2014 by Frank Wynne) for its shocking twists and turns. I must admit, it did not disappoint. The set up of the novel had the potential for it to be a comedy, but this is a dark story about big dreams, poor planning, and the downward spiral toward failure.
The main characters Elena and J are a young couple in their early 30s who decide to give up on city life and move to a remote island where J has purchased a small farm, sight unseen. It is clear from the beginning that this upheaval, while welcomed by the two characters, is going to exacerbate any problems already existing between them. Elena is rude and disdainful toward the ordinary people she has to rely on to move her things, while J is everyone’s friend and happy to drink with anyone. When they arrive on the island, the house they have bought is in disrepair and the farm is not profitable. This doesn’t bother J, as it was never his intention to get rich from the farm; rather this move was meant to be a sign of his and Elena’s rejection of mainstream society. As one of his friends later wrote:
He and Elena were playing up the role of beatnik rebels, people who don’t believe in anyone or anything, hardened by the sea and salt air….
J takes to island life immediately, getting to know the locals and getting the reputation for being a good guy. Elena meanwhile trusts no one; she doesn’t care to get to know her neighbors and she treats them with incredible disrespect. While J might be a good neighbor, he doesn’t know the first thing about farm management and he drinks far too much. His poor choices and bad luck lead to the farm losing money, meaning he will need to ask for an extension on his bank loans and ultimately have to make choices that he had originally said he would never make regarding his land. J’s choices plus Elena’s attitude lead to a downward spiral in their relationship and economic situation. The fallout from that is shocking even though it is foreshadowed throughout the story.
I don’t know enough about the history of Colombia to say if this story is an allegory for its history or for the time when the book was written. When I finished, one thought I had was that J and Elena’s situation on the island was perhaps reminiscent of Adam and Eve after the fall, paradise lost — you can see what it could have been and how irresponsible choices led to what it became. Or more simply, this is perhaps just a story about affluent city folk being clueless about life outside the city and the amount of work it takes most people to get by. At any rate, In the Beginning Was The Sea is a dark, gripping tale that had me riveted from beginning to end.