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Trouble in paradise

A Colombian novel of corrupted innocence is published in English more than 30 years after it was written

Simon Willis | September/October 2014

ENGLISH TITLE  In the Beginning Was the Sea 
AUTHOR  Tomás González 
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE  Spanish
TRANSLATOR  Frank Wynne 

As you read this novel—originally published in 1983, but appearing in English for the first time—you can hear it ticking. González left it skilfully planted with narrative bombs. You know the explosion is coming; the only question is who and what will set it off. It opens with a couple, J. and Elena, leaving their life of booze and cocaine in the Colombian city of Medellín to set up home on an estate, or finca, on the coast. It has forests of kapok and cashew, and fields for animals to graze. When waves roll up its little pebble beach, they make a sound like maracas. And in the shabby wooden house at the foot of a hill, there’s a bedroom where—we’re told on page 34—“the corpse would be bathed”.

The result is an atmosphere of clenched anticipation, helped by the precision of Frank Wynne’s impeccable translation. The story has a fabular arc, but its texture is rich and real: an ideal of simple living corrupted by the reality of bad investments and crippling debt, boredom and violence. To make ends meet the couple open a shop, but they are lousy shopkeepers, giving too much away on credit. J. turns an avaricious eye on the trees and hires loggers to fell them for timber, who turn out to be shoddy and threatening. Elena settles into a habit of violent outbursts, J. into liver-pickling aguardiente. 

González was working in a Bogotá bar when he wrote the book, but his novel is intimate with its littoral setting. In one passage he rattles off its mingled stink: the “musky, resinous” smell of dead crabs, the murky scent of mangrove, suntan lotion, hot toilets and petrol. A couple look for paradise. This is what it smells like. ~ Simon Willis

Pushkin Press, out now

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