I’m not sure what to make of In the Beginning was the Sea. ‘She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory’ says the Epigraph from Kogi Cosmology. Is it possible to have memory before anything else?
The novel begins when two rich Colombians, J. and Elena, decide to lead an alternative life on a Caribbean island just off the Colombian shores mostly populated by fishermen and farmhands.
They buy a finca (a farm) with cattle, wood and crops and whilst Elena resents the attentions of the locals who stare at her young, butternut skin – she assumes them ignorant – J. has no difficultly in seeing the people of the island as people just like himself and he is well-liked by the villagers.
But J. and Elena are a tempestuous couple. The heat drags them down. They drown in the waters of the sea, their sweat and aguardiente. Were they ever really cut out for this life of sea sand and nature?
I enjoyed the heat of this novel that set fire and languor against each other, but the ending seemed to offer no clear meaning or trajectory. True, life can be full of surprises, but I wasn’t sure what I was meant to understand from an ending that has the definitive hallmark either of a writer just learning his craft and seeking the easiest means to an ending at a creator’s disposal, or of autobiography. The elegance of the ambiance created by Tomás González, the excellent depiction of these two characters and their differences, their unfulfilled passions and ambitions, seemed to me to be at odds with the narrative arc, but perhaps I was meant to leave the novel with a sense that meaning is a futile pursuit.
I definitely enjoyed In the Beginning was the Sea and I would recommend it to those interested in reading about how rich people unintentionally fritter their opportunities and in so doing knowingly waste the life under their care. The atmosphere is beautifully rendered. The relationships painfully believable. Perhaps, though, my dissatisfaction lies in my feeling that it all ends too soon. And though I wanted more, such forays into foreign parts with no training or local knowledge, merely the sense of entitlement, often do end too soon.
If you like the idea of spending time in a beach house with waves lapping a perfectly sandy beach, if you like the idea of stranded characters living with limited space, money, goods and people, you will relish In the Beginning was the Sea. Certainly it lingers on the taste buds of the mind.
Next week I’m reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.