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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

In the Beginning
was the Sea


by
Tomás González


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In the Beginning was the Sea



Title: In the Beginning was the Sea
Author: Tomás González
Genre: Novel
Written: 1983 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 172 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: In the Beginning was the Sea - US
Primero estaba el mar - US
In the Beginning was the Sea - UK
In the Beginning was the Sea - Canada
In the Beginning was the Sea - India
Au commencement était la mer - France
Am Anfang war das Meer - Deutschland
Primero estaba el mar - España
  • Spanish title: Primero estaba el mar
  • Translated by Frank Wynne

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sharp, effective study of doomed lives and choices

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 22/8/2014 Julius Purcell
FAZ . 15/7/2006 Hans Christoph Buch
The Guardian . 29/9/2014 Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Independent A- 31/7/2014 James Kidd
Irish Times . 19/7/2014 Eileen Battersby
Le Monde . 11/11/2010 Nils C. Ahl
NZZ . 4/7/2006 Karl-Markus Gauss
The Telegraph B+ 28/8/2014 Anthony Cummins
TLS . 26/9/2014 Jessica Loudis


  Review Consensus:

  Impressed -- and wonder what took so long for it to be translated

  From the Reviews:
  • "A laconic American style has edged into his story (.....) For all its exoticism, a novel that probes how hippydom is often built on the labours of the poor may well cause its new European readers more than a few twinges of conscience." - Julius Purcell, Financial Times

  • "Unter Verzicht auf kulinarische Sinnlichkeit schildert er Kolumbien als unbekannten Kontinent, den seine eigenen Bewohner nicht verstehen. (...) Der Doppel- und Hintersinn des Romans wird hier sichtbar, ebenso wie seine philosophische Botschaft: Albert Camus läßt grüßen -- nur mit dem Unterschied, daß man sich Sisyphus in der Karibik nicht als glücklichen Menschen vorzustellen hat." - Hans Christoph Buch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "We realise then that many hints of the outcome have been dropped from the very first pages of the novel; we realise, too, that González cares little for suspense: he wants us to read with the outcome in mind, so that we can pay attention to the process of decomposition, to the minute choices the characters make. All of which, in light of what will eventually happen, takes on a new significance. (...) Translator Frank Wynne (...) is responsible for yet another flawless job: his ear is well attuned to the idiosyncrasies of González's dialogue, and the novel's shy poetry loses nothing in his version." - Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Guardian

  • "The narrative shape is that of a paradise quickly gained and easily lost. J and Elena's innocence is captured in the title which is itself drawn from Kogi cosmology. This lyrical but vague philosophy is present in a story that is heavy on fate and light on context for J and Elena's escapism. The resulting mood is hallucinatory. Events wriggle and slip from J's booze-weakened grasp almost without his agency. (...) This may well be a bold critique of their microcosmic act of colonisation, their disregard for people, lives and ideas bigger than themselves, but it does make you tire of their moodiness, discourtesy and ineffectiveness." - James Kidd, The Independent

  • "The opening pages of this odd and smoothly intriguing narrative, with its touches of sinister, Patricia Highsmith-like menace, read as if written for the screen. (...) (A) brilliantly laconic, sophisticated translation by Sligo-born, London-based Frank Wynne who, ever alert to every surreal nuance, conveys the disturbing humour with the panache of a master. (...) It is sharp and assured. That the central characters are unredeemable is irrelevant, particularly as they are countered by a cast of superb minor players. González’s amoral cautionary tale is based on real events. The story is shocking but the genius lies in the telling and there is no denying that the art has been well served by Wynne’s astute, pitch-perfect translation." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Le tour de force de la narration, cependant, est d' inscrire chaque moment de sa tragédie dans une clarté inquiétante, chaque mot invitant à un vertige de significations. (...) Un livre d'une rare puissance." - Nils C. Ahl, Le Monde

  • "Darin liegt die Kunst des Tomás González, den Einzelnen so ernst zu nehmen, dass er ihm in seinem Scheitern Würde, in seinem Selbstbetrug Grösse gibt und sogar in seinem Sterben auf wundersame Weise so etwas wie Lebenskraft zu entdecken vermag. Tröstlich ist das nicht, wohl aber ergreifend." - Karl-Markus Gauss, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "As a memorial, it’s strikingly unsentimental, with little by way of lament. (...) (T)his is a sad story, well told, and it reads smoothly in Frank Wynne’s lively translation. Not exactly a novel to enjoy, but it is certainly one that lingers" - Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he novel remains extremely potent: sly, voyeuristic, ominously poetic (...) Out of synch with the rhythms of nature and alienated from the community, the pair become tragicomic figures, as ridiculous as they are vulnerable. In this, In the Beginning was the Sea is a clever riff on the Rousseaus (both Henri and Jean-Jacques), a cautionary tale about choosing to defy the laws of nature and man, and ultimately discovering that idealism can’t replace them." - Jessica Loudis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the Beginning was the Sea begins with the couple J. and Elena abandoning hometown Medellín in the mid-1970s for a new life seaside, on an expansive finca -- an estate with lots of land, some cows and crops and lumber. They seem to have had enough of the pretensions of city life -- at one point it's explained J. came here: "in order to escape a demeaning form of rationality that was as sterile as crude oil, as social climbing as bitumen" --, something building up in J. for a while now, apparently:

Two years earlier, during a drunken binge, J. had burnt his reproductions of Modigliani, Picasso and Klee and since then had rejected the notion of "good taste", and gradually transformed his apartment in Envigado into a gallery of bad art, crude daubs, depicting everyday life.
       The original plan -- insofar as there was one -- seems to have been a vague one of: "just to move out to the sea and enjoy life, buy a little boat for fishing, a few cows, a chickens". But the city folk still furnish their new home -- which they first find with the floor strewn: "with yellowing magazines, copies of Vanidades and Reader's Digest" -- with a bookcase of well-thumbed books: "The complete works of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Lagerkvist, Camus and Neruda", among others. And whatever they have or had in mind proves hard to put into practice.
       The novel begins with, if not a journey to hell, so at least with an arduous, unpleasant trip, the transition from comfortable city-life to the rundown place they've decided to settle in one that does not bode well. But that this story is leading to some dark places is clear from the get-go, and González doesn't just drop hints as to what the outcome will be, he's explicit -- though in an almost off-hand way, with incidental mentions of a corpse, a police investigation, and even how much time one of the characters has left ..... He leaves some uncertainty, the details of first who, then when, and ultimately why, carefully dosed out, but it all leads only to a foregone conclusion; In the Beginning was the Sea is more an exploration of the characters and their embrace of their fates than a suspense story -- and yet the sense of menace throughout make for a surprisingly gripping story, too.
       Neither J. and Elena have the temperament necessary for life on a finca. That J.'s drinking binges bring out something in him is already suggested by the account of his having burnt his "reproductions of Modigliani, Picasso and Klee" -- but equally telling about that episode is the fact that he didn't regret it afterwards, but rather threw himself into something completely different with complete abandon, as well as what that actually was-- "a gallery of bad art, crude daubs". J isn't one to back-track: he doubles down and plunges ahead -- and unfortunately generally not in the right direction.
       Neither J. nor Elena has great people-skills, but for a while, at least, they have a man running the estate who is reasonably capable. A large loan they took out is long-term problem -- there's practically no way for them to earn enough to pay it off -- but the real issues are closer at hand, in the way they treat the people they have to deal with on a regular basis. Including, ultimately, each other. Elena is a hothead, and J. drinks too much, and there's simply not enough to their seaside idyll to keep them satisfied; they can't create the world they wanted to.
       J. has an enormous, nearly 2000-page blank book which a bookbinder friend of his made and gave to him; "he loved the object and the story behind it", and he keeps a diary of sorts in it; a few excerpts are included in the narrative. It's typical of J., however: a far too ambitious project -- 1970 pages to fill ! -- that has abstract appeal but is simply unrealizable. It's touches like that, or the mention of the final Christmas present Elena gives J., the book History of Erotic Art, and what becomes of it, that give In the Beginning was the Sea such a solid foundation. So much is incidental and everyday, but it all adds up to a situation that can not stand, conditions that make for an inevitable collapse.
       Unpleasant J. and Elena simply can not change how and who they are; one at least makes good an escape of sorts; the other does too, arguably, the conclusion seeming as much the culmination of a long process of self-destruction as anything else. It makes for a well-told dark and impressively haunting story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 October 2014

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Links:

In the Beginning was the Sea: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Tomás González was born in 1950.

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© 2014 the complete review

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