In the Beginning, the Sea…in the End, a Global Literary Journey

Colombian author Tomás González began writing the story of his brother. Thirty years later it is a tale that has travelled the world captivating readers, and now landed in the English speaking world. Latinolife interviews Colombia’s unlikely literary sensation
Gabriella Villafradez

Tomás González, Born in 1950 in the North West of Colombia, is not new to writing. But he is to fame. Writing his first book, in 1983 whilst working in a bar in Bogotá, he didn’t know In the Beginning was the Sea, would capture the imagination of writers like Elfriede Jelinek. This 172 page book takes the reader through the real-life struggles of Tomas’ brother Juan and Juan’s wife, Elena, but it’s the wonderful and captivating narrative that has put it on must-read lists around the globe.

Already translated into French and German, it was no surprise that Pushkin Press made it its mission to get the book into the English-speaking world. Gonzalez candidly explains that the reason behind writing his brother’s story was to make sense of the events that led to his death. Years after Juan’s death, Gonzalez chose to go and visit the fica and indulge in the environment his brother called home for a few years. The book not only focuses on the turbulent characteristics of J. and Elena, but looks at everyday accepted racism and sexism, inevitable results of human stubbornness when confronting nature.

Nature is a recurring feature in the book; the rhythm of the writing reflects the rhythm of the sea. Repetition of certain words reminds the reader of the constancy of nature, despite the ever changing situations in life.

This is a gem of a book which opening shows the great potential Tomas Gonzalez has. Latino Life had the chance to interview the Paisa the day after his book launch at the Colombian Embassy in London.

Latinolife: Before reading your book I did not read anything about you so I did not realize that it was your brother's life. Your feelings for him are unseen and you didn’t let your emotions affect the book. You could have painted him differently; a hero, a saint or a victim but decided not to. It was something you did consciously, was it difficult or easy?

Tomás González: It was intentional. It was the only way to do it because if I did too sentimentally I would have been able to write. I had to stay cool so that I could write. I saw it not as my brother but as a story I had to write.

LL: Saying this, did you always know that it was going to be a biography, or did you at some point think about changing direction or facts and write a novel with a different ending?

TG: I wanted to write a novel because there were all the elements for a novel. But I wanted to write a novel staying true to the actual events. As I didn’t know all the events I had to make up certain parts. For example there are some characters that were not there when certain events happened and are created characters such as Julito and the boaters, they don’t exist. There are actual boaters that are very similar. I never thought of changing the end because it is the most difficult and it is what I wanted to try to understand what happened in that final moment.

LL: Would you say that that is the hardest part to write? Emotionally or creatively?

TG: Yes. Collectively, because it is the most intense part where things were to be resolved or not. I was so afraid of the ending all of the time I was writing for obvious reasons.

LL: Dirias que esa es la parte mas dicil de escribir? Emocionalmente o creativamente?

TG: Si. Todo va junto porque es la parte más intensa donde las cosas se resolvían o no se resolvían. Le tenía mucho miedo al final todo el tiempo que estaba escribiendo por obvias razones.

LL: The fascinating thing about the book is that not only the men are the protagonists. In one chapter you talk about a town where a grandmother is the moral authority of the whole town. Did you also have a strong female figure in your life and why did you add this character in your book?

I believe that the figure of my grandmother was very strong. She was the authority of the family because my mom's grandfather died relatively young, and she remained in charge. She was a great authority. But in the book the farmhouse was real, a lady was the leaders and to a great extent she decided what was done. I added her because I felt it was important the presence of that lady and she was a person who was going to have an opinion on what happened to J. and would have your opinion on that.

In Chapter 11 we see the opposite. Elena is having an argument with some men but they ignore her arguments. Do you think this reflects the machismo we see every day in Latin America?

Without a doubt. I brought this to the story because this explains to some extent Elena’s behaviour. She was a person of strong character and she felt like she was disappearing. Thus, her reaction was defensiveness and making herself felt. So not to become invisible she went to the other extreme.

You wrote this book in 1983. Have you read it since?

Yes because there have been various editions so every time there is a new edition I re-read it and make a few changes.

Have you read the English translation? Do you think it takes the reader where it needs to?

No everything just certain parts. To some extent yes, the dialogue is a bit plain because in Spanish you can hear the regional accent, the Antioquian accent. I’m not sure whether this can be compensated when translated so it doesn’t sound plain. Maybe keeping particular words and idioms in Spanish helps.

When J. arranges his book in the new bookshelf Gilberto makes for him you mention various writers. Are these the books J. took with him or are they authors you chose for the book?

I can’t remember now. Juan, my brother, took with him some and some of them were….But I can’t remember how many he really took and how many I made up. I know he had the complete collection of Nietzsche’s works because now I have them. I don’t think either of us has read them. There are still there as part of the furniture.

What did you learn whilst writing the book? About yourself, about writing, about life when you were writing the book?

I’ve never really analysed the outcome of the endeavour. For me the effort of writing the book was gratifying enough. Writing was enough; I had no intention to learn or to go anywhere with it. It is possible that I could have learned something because the effort of writing makes you learn how to learn a bit better. But this was not the reason for writing. What surprised me was the reception because I didn’t expect it to be so positive. At first it was one person at a time, because that is how it was distributed, self-made. And this is how I received the comments. It still surprises me since 30 odd years have passed and now it’s being translated to English.

Now when people analyse and examine your book, do their conclusions surprise you? And do you relive those moments and feelings of your life and towards Juan?

You relive it a bit because people ask questions about what really happened and so I have to make the effort to remember and think of his death again. This is always hard but it is also good that this happens so one doesn’t get used to the person dying.

You use J. in the book? Was this done intentionally or was that his nickname?

No, it wasn’t his nickname. It was done on purpose because it gave me the freedom to make it fiction. If I had used Juan I would have had to guide everything towards him and it wouldn’t give me the freedom to make the story fictional.

What’s your next Project?

I am going to finish writing a book of short stories, and I think I am going to continue writing short stories for some time because I really enjoy doing so even if it is really hard. I have been doing this for years that I nearly do it without thinking. It’s like a runner who goes out to run but doesn’t notice until they are out in the street. It’s a way of life. It’s like breathing; it’s essential for me.

In the Beginning was The Sea by Tomás González is available nowå