I have read a few French books translated into English by Frank Wynne including ‘Alex’ and ‘Irene’ by Pierre Lemaitre but I was unfamiliar with his translations from Spanish until now. ‘In the Beginning Was the Sea’ is Tomás González’s debut novel and was first published in 1983 by the owner of a Bogotá nightclub where he worked as a barman. Over thirty years later, it is the first of his books to be translated into English and has recently been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
‘In the Beginning Was the Sea’ tells the story of J. and Elena, a young intellectual couple who move from the Colombian city of Medellín to begin a supposedly more idyllic life on a stretch of remote tropical coast of Colombia. However, their relationship is volatile, their debts mount up quickly and the exotic setting turns out to be very far from paradise. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out as they had planned and trouble ahead is hinted at rather ominously in the first few chapters: “The other bedroom, where they would later open up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed, was completely empty”.
Neither J. or Elena are particularly likeable characters and the narrator appears to have a fair amount of disdain towards their bohemian lifestyle too. J. is said to be “fascinated by futile intellectual pursuits, which were a part of his inchoate and confused revolt against culture” while Elena is permanently in a bad mood. Although the concept of “first world problems” had yet to be identified in the early 1980s, there are certainly some elements of this in J. and Elena’s attitude towards their new surroundings.
The blurb describes the story as “a dramatic and searingly ironic account of the disastrous encounter of the imagined life with reality – a satire of hippyism, ecological fantasies, and of the very idea that man can control fate”. The prose itself is spare and succinct and the imagery is both strikingly vivid and dreamlike. While there are certainly some humorous aspects to the story, it quickly becomes much darker in tone, given that it is based on the true story of González’s brother Juan and his girlfriend who undertook a similar journey in the mid-1970s. The ending itself happened rather abruptly and still seemed quite shocking despite the numerous hints throughout the story.
Wynne has previously won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005 for his translation from the French of ‘Windows on the World’ by Frédéric Beigbeder. Whether he will repeat his success again with ‘In the Beginning Was the Sea’ remains to be seen but I would certainly be happy to see it on the shortlist. Hopefully, translations into English of González’s five other novels will follow.