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In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González review – a tragedy foretold
Juan Gabriel Vásquez acclaims the English translation of Colombia's best-kept secret
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Saturday 30 August 2014 08.30 BST
In the Beginning Was the Sea is not a usual first novel. For one thing, it was published by a nightclub (where its author worked as a barman). The year was 1983. Since then, González, born in 1950, has published six other novels, and here is the next unusual fact about his first one: everything is already there. Most writers take a few years, even a few decades, to discover a voice and settle into it, to master the intricacies of structure and imagery that will allow them best to give literary shape to their obsessions; but González's last two novels, La luz difícil and Tempestad –both hailed as quiet masterpieces at the time of their publication in Colombia – provide as much literary satisfaction as In the Beginning Was the Sea. Through all his work you find the peaceful writing that admirably traces the ugliness of the world; the confidence of the narrative voice, seemingly conventional while eschewing the straitjackets of realism; and the all-pervading violence that informs every situation and eventually explodes.
Elena and J., a couple in their 30s, travel from Medellín, the big provincial capital in the Andes, to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. They have bought a run-down house surrounded by the sea, but also by local poverty and vast unproductive estates. The plan, at the beginning, is quite straightforward: to escape urban life, its crass materialism, its pretence and snobbery, "to move out to the sea and enjoy life, buy a little boat for fishing, a few cows, a few chickens". Needless to say, things don't work out like that.
There are rules in the new world that Elena and J. don't understand; there are underlying tensions that sour their relationship; and then there is something we can only call hubris. J. is that overly familiar character, an intellectual looking for real life and finding that real life was not, strictly speaking, looking for him; Elena is a strong-willed, practical-minded woman who doesn't have time for compromise, or idealism, or understanding others. Yes, personal reinvention is a dangerous game, and the reader soon discovers – through a narrator who knows more than his characters do and enjoys spoilers – that the whole project will eventually end in outright failure.
In the Beginning Was the Sea is, among other things, the chronicle of that failure foretold. In shape, it is tragic: exactly halfway through the novel González gives voice to an acquaintance of Elena and J.'s who speaks from the future, from a moment when everything has already happened. He has harsh words about J. and "the whole highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie". Mercilessly, he concludes: "It's astonishing he reached the age of thirty-four." 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.
González is a keen reader of the literature of the American south: Carson McCullers is here, and so is the tragic vision of Flannery O'Connor, as well as her love of foreshadowing. But he is also in debt to his Latin American forefathers. In his fondness for squalor and defeat, the reader will find echoes of Juan Carlos Onetti; in his spare but evocative prose we sense the presence, at the same time predictable and entirely surprising, of the early works of Gabriel García Márquez. Stories such as "There Are No Thieves in This Town" or the 1962 novel In Evil Hour reverberate in González's prose, in his mysterious ability to uplift the commonplace and turn it into unforgettable images through careful observation and sensuous detail. I will never forget the sound of the claws tinkling against the tin as crab stew is being cooked; or how Elena, in a moment of anger, hurls a book "which fluttered across the shop like a crazed chicken". When a character walks on mud, González takes the time to notice "the sucking sound" his feet make. Translator Frank Wynne, who has recently published a wonderful rendition of González's Colombian contemporary Andrés Caicedo, 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.
Eight years ago, González was branded "the best-kept secret of Colombian literature" by a literary magazine. He has since become one of his country's foremost novelists, and In the Beginning Was the Sea – this taut, uncompromising study of the faultlines in all of us – is earning a wide readership. Perhaps it's time to call him something else.
• Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Sound of Things Falling (Bloomsbury) won this year's Impac prize. To order In the Beginning Was the Sea for £9.60 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.