There are days when I suspect many of us entertain the fantasy of leaving civilization and moving to some remote tropical island. In the Columbian novel, In the Beginning Was the Sea, apparently based on a true story, author Tomás González creates two unlikable characters J and Elena who buy a ramshackle finca on an island off the coast of Columbia. The novel begins with J and Elena traveling to their new home by bus to the coast, and it’s a disastrous trip which is just the beginning of a bad decision. There’s immediately the sense that J and Elena are fish out of water who cannot even imagine the life that waits for them:
By day, the bus picked up passengers carrying bewildered chickens: at night, empty-handed individuals boarded the bus in dark, desolate places only to get off in equally dark desolate places twenty or thirty kilometres further on. Silent men with machetes slung from their belts and dirty, battered hats on their heads.
It’s a great quote which illustrates the menace of these men who travel without luggage from one remote place to another. Are they criminals or are they simply downtrodden workers, mired in poverty, looking for the next job? We can’t tell and as the novel wears on, this inability to distinguish between poverty and potential danger becomes an important factor.
Parked all around the plaza were lines of Jeeps. Some looked new, but most were rusty broken-down Willys half eaten by rust or clapped-out Gaz or Carpatis. The newer models had metal driver’s cabs with small red or blue fans mounted on the dashboard while older models sported grubby statues of a saint next to the steering wheel and faded, patched tarpaulin roofs.
The dusty streets around the plaza would become quagmires in the rainy season. Traffic was heavy: trucks full with packages arrived as the jeeps teeming with passengers left. Garishly painted buses pulled up, their roofs piled high with live chickens, multi-coloured tin trunks and bunches of plantains.
The squat building on concrete and brick–mostly grain stores and seedy bars–were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.
The author doesn’t dwell on J and Elena’s impressions of the town, but J “threaded his way through the dusty streets” until “finally, he could see the water.” Meanwhile Elena is in a state of inchoate rage at the fate of the first casualty of the move–her sewing machine which was broken when it fell off the roof of the bus. This incident, while seemingly quite small, is indicative of the future: J, who’s left Elena to deal with the luggage, goes off boozing and gets drunk while Elena, full of impotent verbal abuse, rails at people who obviously don’t care.
Elena headed off to the shipping office to complain, where she was roundly greeted by a slob who insisted this was just one of those things that could have happened to anyone. Elena flew into a rage and curtly informed him that his company was shit. The man–who was not so much rude as insignificant–immediately agreed:
“You’re right, the company is shit.”
With a scheduled departure on a boat the next day, J and Elena must stay the night at a local hotel. Elena tells a local that she wants “the best,” and she’s told “there is no best,” and they stay in one of the many local hotels–theirs “reeked of cat piss, though there was no sign of a cat.”
J and Elena’s desires and wishes, and their sense of importance, are immediately eviscerated by the hardscrabble economy of the town. Their sense of entitlement and their self-importance are nothing here amongst the locals. There will be no special privileges, no special accommodations for the fastidious. They will eat food covered with flies and sleep in airless rooms just like everyone else. J rolls with it (helped by his alcohol haze) while Elena is obviously not the type to go slumming.
The finca is a “huge, ramshackle wooden mansion [was] built into the side of a hill.” It looks better from a distance. It’s filthy, has a corrugated iron roof, is full of bats & cockroaches, and has no running water. Elena’s earlier rage turns into cleaning mania much to the astonishment of a husband and wife team hired to work at the finca.
The finca comes with two hundred hectares and J’s plan to lead a simple life, farm and raise cattle goes wrong. By chapter 6, we know that something bad will happen, and it’s clear through J and Elena’s behaviour that they’re not suited for this type of endeavor. Elena is abusive to the locals and the servants, and J is busy drinking himself into oblivion. Their business plan takes a turn for the worse, and their initial plan branches out into a couple of other money making (or money draining) schemes. While it’s easy to predict that this will end badly, there’s no sacrifice in tension; there are so many ways this story could go, that the turn, when it comes, is sudden and brutal.
J and Elena are unlikable even “unbearable” characters–although J does gain some respect from the locals who clearly feel sorry for him being married to Elena. We don’t know exactly why J and Elena make this drastic decision to farm an island finca, but the novel gives us hints about the “wild chaotic life” they led “before they ran away to sea.” Life at the finca, instead of being the simple life of an island paradise, is hell for both J and Elena–she erodes into an ill tempered neurotic and in J’s case, he turns to heavy drinking. J has a history of being fascinated by “futile intellectual pursuits, which were a part of his inchoate and confused revolt against culture,” and he’s clearly attracted to the idea of leaving civilization behind and carving a living out from the land while rejecting a conformist 9-5 job. Unfortunately, J is a dilettante who’s inherited just enough money to get himself into trouble. The islanders lead a subsistence level existence; it’s a life of hard work, and it’s fascinating to see how J, although he expresses some “highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie” thoughts, shifts his goals once he becomes a landowner. The “original plan” to “move out to sea and enjoy life, buy a little boat for fishing, a few cows, a few chickens,” explodes into a self-destructive, arrogant “bourgeois dream” which neither J nor Elena are equipped to deal with. Of course there’s a great deal of irony here as the theoretical simple life turns into a massive problem of land and people management with the bank extending loans that are impossible to repay. Pretentious idealism meets reality and guess which wins.
Translated by Frank Wynne