There is an ominous, and delicious, aura of fear right from the start of this novel. You can instantly sense that things are going to go wrong, you just don’t know when, much like the feeling you get when watching an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Rather than being annoying, the obvious foreshadowing exacerbates the tension. Sentences like this, “Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end,” begin early on and continue throughout the novel.
J. and his girlfriend Elena have come to a remote finca (country estate) where they plan to live in the remote and beautiful environment of Colombia. It takes four and a half hours by boat to arrive at their destination from the nearest town. Once they arrive, problem after problem slowly emerges.
Their house is filthy, and apart from the kitchen, basically unusable until Elena clears out the rubbish and scrubs its entirety. Their money, entrusted to J.’s unreliable relative, is gone when he declares bankruptcy. The wares for the store they set up arrive considerably short of what they’d ordered. And over all this potential disaster is the unremitting presence of alcohol, aguardiente, a distilled liquor made in South America from sugar cane.
Forced to consider cutting down the trees on his land for timber to sell, J. writes in his journal, “I’ll be forced to practice the Ancient Art of Axmanship, as the local poets call it. Make way for civilization, you puny fucking kapoks!” This defiance, even though he knows they are far from puny trees.
In the beginning was…it would only make sense, biblically, that the next thing to follow would be “be fruitful and multiply.” But this is the very thing that J. is unable to do. His cattle die, his timber falls, his relationship with Elena fails. He has the opposite of the Midas touch for nothing turns to gold. Nothing prospers.
How ironic that the novel ends with a scene we encountered early on in the novel. It is the scene of a cemetery, perhaps the most peaceful place in all the book, the place that seemed the least sinister to J.
Based on the true story about the author’s brother, In the Beginning Was the Sea is the third book I have read for the IFFP this year. The writing is spare and elegant, bringing both time and place into bas relief. It is a novel I enjoyed very much and will think about for a long time.