I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a novel for a long time. I generally get to a point fifty pages into a novel or halfway through where I pause to consider what I’m getting out of this book. If the answer is nothing I generally put it aside. I wouldn’t throw it out because there are novels I’ve come back to years later and become captivated by after dismissing them on a first reading. Books that don’t grip my imagination more often bore me than offend me. But reading González’s “In the Beginning Was the Sea” I had to patiently consider the intentions behind what I was reading. The trouble is the tone of this narrative about a couple named Elena and J. who move to a rural area in Colombia, a small farm by the sea to live a more wholesome artistically-pure existence by eschewing the materialism of the big city. Immediately they are out of their element. We’re given descriptions of the repulsive sights and smells of the local rustic population. The focal point of this story is undoubtedly Elena and J. but the narrative isn’t in their voices. So do these judgemental descriptions belong to the author, the characters or some faceless narrator in between? This question felt like a vital one to me in determining whether this novel was essentially abhorrent or not.
Let me give you an example of some of the many descriptions of characters viewed only fleetingly in this novel: “Julito’s wife was fat – unsurprisingly – and surly.” It’s a distasteful and limited amount of information to give about a character, but it’s the pompous dismissive “unsurprisingly” which really grates in my mind. Who made the assumption about her character here? Is it J., the narrator or the author? Perhaps these opinions could be counterbalanced if Julito’s wife were granted some integrity later in the novel, but she’s never given this. Even when any praise is given to characters it’s done in a backhanded way such as this passage about a fisherman named Salomon: “Though taciturn and physically unremarkable, he seemed to have an extraordinary talent.” The overriding feeling of this voice we’re reading is someone who fundamentally dislikes people. J. and Elena are not immune to such critiques either, but the novel is dedicated to rendering their grand mission as a noble – if fatally-foolish and tragic enterprise – whereas the rural population they live amongst are considered simply repulsive. Later on J. engages in an affair with a local man’s wife who “was an abysmally stupid and sensual woman, a warm mass of listless, voluptuous flesh.” Although he’s disgusted by her, he’s aroused enough to screw her. No doubt these protagonists from a privileged background refuse to grant the people around them human respect, but I don’t want the author trying to convince me that such a narrow-minded, sneering perspective of people is the only one that exists.
The narrative is muddled by the intentions of Elena and J. If you’re worried about reading spoilers here you really shouldn’t be because the book never makes any mystery about what a tragic enterprise it is that they embark on. Throughout the book we’re given flashes forward to how it all ends. The couple move to their new life to become farmers and merchants because they have an idealized notion about the nobility of the working class. The novel records the painful process of these notions being demystified as their business flops and people they hire fail them. J. sinks into alcoholism while Elena makes an enemy of everyone in the village. What seemed at first like paradise turns into a nightmare. Such naivety does seem ripe for satire – yet, I don’t believe it should be done at the expense of people who have resided in one place all their lives and are simply going about their day. Very late in the novel it’s remarked that J. “thought back to the time when he considered a pretentious critic at some literary magazine more truthful, more important than a taxi driver and his family washing their car and bathing in a cold, rocky stream.” If he really considers their existence as dignified, the narrator grants all these peripheral characters precious little dignity.
This novel was originally published in 1983. González has gone on to become a well-respected novelist in Colombia and is slowly gaining more global recognition. I don’t normally read reviews of novels I’m blogging about until after writing my own thoughts because I don’t want my opinion to be swayed. But this novel had me so confused I had a look at a few. I learned from this review in the Independent that the novel was inspired by González’s own brother who embarked on an identical kind of tragic enterprise. Knowing how close to home it’s subject and themes were to the novelist makes the question of narrative tone even murkier. Surely the author could not help feeling critical of the protagonists as well as the rural population – some of whose actions led to his brother’s destitution and death. That’s not to say I think people of disadvantaged socio-economic groups should be idealized or the actions of specific individuals shouldn’t be open to criticism. But how to take descriptions which sneer so openly at people? Normally readers look to literature for a sense of empathy. Though we may dislike or condemn some characters’ actions, we generally want to understand their point of view. “In the Beginning Was the Sea” resists such openings for sympathy by presenting blunt opinions and a world of discordant, closed points of view. By the end of the novel, I was somewhat beguiled by the removed and severe nature of the story. Yet I also found myself wanting more compassion to assuage the cruelty of this version of reality.