When the fatal blow falls, at the end of Frank Wynne’s long-awaited translation of this modern Colombian classic, the still-conscious victim at least learns why: “That’ll teach you,” the killer says, “to humiliate poor people.”
No need to flag up a spoiler alert. In time-honoured South American literary tradition, Tomás González’s 1983 novel advises readers by page 34 that there is a death on the cards. Appropriately enough, the tale itself is dispatched as a writerly coup de grâce: short and swift, with sharp imagery, menace and sensuality nestling together in its luxuriant Caribbean setting.
In the three decades between the publication of In the Beginning Was the Sea and the arrival of this first English translation, a whole generation of new Colombian writers has grown up amid the shots and machete blows of the terrifying 1980s and 1990s. The awarding of this year’s Impac Dublin prize to Juan Gabriel Vásquez, for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, is another cultural fillip for a now-buoyant Colombia. Even so, from the first pages of that recent novel, we know there will be a violent death. Gabriel García Márquez’s 1981 Chronicle of a Death Foretold certainly casts long shadows.
Now in his sixties, exactly between García Márquez and the new Vásquez generation, Tomás González spent many years living in the US. A laconic American style has edged into his story of “J” and Elena, a thirty-something couple jaded by their boho life in mid-1970s Medellín. Moving into the farmhouse they have just bought on Colombia’s Atlantic coast, they sometimes seem a sourer version of the doomed pair in Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky (1949).
Elena, her youth and beauty shading into shrewishness, soon reveals a dependence on, and contempt for, the farm servants that can only bode ill. More conciliatory, and likeable, is “J”. On seeing the sea, he felt a “brightness blossom in his belly”, an effect he likewise seeks in knocking back bottles of aguardiente. His new life under way, the daily booze intake grows in direct proportion to mounting debts, feckless labourers, endless rain, drunken fights with Elena, and the ever-nearing encounter with the ominous estate manager, Octavio, who seems to have emerged “out of the ground like a crab”.
Ending with the words of the primal cosmology of the indigenous Kogi people – from which its title is also taken – In the Beginning Was the Sea is both a story about death and about practical objects. Nets, tools and coffins are exactly described. González delights in the precise details of the present moment, from a boat engine starting up “solemnly”, to the smear of milk of magnesia on an old man’s thigh.
The depth and verisimilitude of the character of “J” is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that the story is based on one of González’s own siblings. The portrait of a man in so much debt that he must hire woodcutters to deforest his paradise, and whose counter-cultural pretensions do not preclude him from cracking the whip among his staff, seems as arrestingly topical now as it must have been in 1983.
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.
In the Beginning Was the Sea, by Tomás González, translated by Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press, RRP£12, 176 pages