Wasted, wasted, wasted. Over, not over. You.
— David St. John, The Face
Fifteen days after his brother was killed, Tomás González traveled to a small island off the Colombian coast to go through his belongings. “It was terrible,” González recalled in an interview with The Guardian. “You can see what happened in every detail. You see the night table, the books — I could see my brother. I could see his last days.” The event devastated González, and the desire to write about it became “a question of life or death.” After considering the idea of telling Juan’s life story, González decided it would be best to recount only the end. And so In the Beginning Was the Sea opens with the image of his brother on the bus beside his lover, embarking on what he thinks is a rebirth, but which ends up killing him.
First published in the early 1980s by the owner of the Bogotá nightclub where González worked as a bartender, In the Beginning Was the Sea was eventually reviewed in local newspapers and released by a commercial publisher. In the years since, González has become one of the most celebrated living Colombian writers, though his work has only recently been available in English, starting with In the Beginning Was the Sea’s UK release last year, and followed by an American release this year. Though more than 30 years old, González’s story of failed bohemian idealism has new power in its conscious merging of fiction and confessional in a time of nauseating uncertainty about the purpose of the memoir in all its unheeled forms.
Written as a coping mechanism for grief, In the Beginning Was the Sea presents itself as a novel, hiding a confessional gut-spilling within the rhythm and structure of fiction, satisfying the impulse of self-reflection while skirting its vulgar indulgences. Written with an omniscient brutality, the book is composed of 38 short chapters, each of which ends with what feels like an expository blow, 38 ticks of a tourniquet tightening around a limb that will at some point be severed. “It ain’t my fault, seño,” says one of the local men hired to carry the sewing machine of J.’s partner, Elena, in the grimy port town of Turbo, after carelessly dropping it. Later, settling into their new life on the island, J. reads poetry by candlelight as “moths darted through the flame — something J. found faintly disgusting — while outside the waves thundered.” Another early chapter closes with an attempt at salt-curing some fish, which ends in an overbearing stench and the fish thrown out.
These moments of foreboding create a forensic sensitivity to detail, fixating on where the chain of events that led to J.’s death began, looking for a moment when a warning signal might have been recognized or some point of no return avoided. González fills the landscape with a rot and decay that undermine any attempt at rural escapism. The waters in Turbo are oily and stagnant, leaving green slime on the wharf posts while feeding a worm colony that eats away at the wood. On the island, J. finds that the grassy pastureland he’d hoped to use to raise cattle is more of a swamp, and a handful of cows he bought with the estate have died from infection before their arrival.
Elena takes to swimming and sunbathing in a beautiful cove that turns out to be on a heavily trafficked footpath to the island’s main village, making her subject to the frequent and lurid gawking from local men, which forces her to build a fence around the beach and claim it as private property, thus deepening tension with the villagers. J. develops a fungal infection of the foot in the persistent humidity and filth of the island, which eventually keeps him bedridden for two weeks.
These disgusting discoveries have a twin resonance, both as suspenseful foreshadowing and as an unconscious buckling of the imagination to the discomfort in turning a personal history into a cultural token. Prefiguring a deluge of confessional writing that would follow, González’s novel is a composed attempt to mask guilt about the frivolity and narcissism of elevating subjective experience, a monument of survivor’s grief that cannot acknowledge it’s mostly about the survivor and not the victim. It’s difficult not to read González’s first book as a prefiguration of the internet age’s embrace of and discomfort with the memoir. Though people have long experimented with ways of merging fiction and confession (or accusation) — from André Breton to Mary McCarthy — the internet has inspired a swarm of unselfconscious vulgarians to rush headfirst into new depths of public self-inquiry. In doing so, the one-time cottage industry of intellectual memoir has been driven toward more experimental and masochistic ends. It’s a kind of petty heresy to assume the story of your own interiority is worth telling.
As with other petty taboos, the more commonly practiced the habit, the less tolerable it is to see other people engaged in it. We live in a state of memoir-nausea, in which the convulsive antagonism toward gut-spilling is closely attended by an ecstatic fascination with it. To pass as worthwhile, memoir must make its own unwieldy ugliness a central theme. Perhaps predictably, critical regard for the confessional writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer whose main virtue is a willingness to confess to everything, has thoroughly surpassed that for his fiction. Appropriately, Knausgaard’s work is a prolonged inner monologue with shame itself. No subject is worth depiction if it cannot eventually be threaded back into Knausgaard’s self-incrimination, a psychic squint at his now mystifying capacity to transform anything that passes through his mind into an indictment, a generational echo of Camus’s portrait of Meursault as a man who yearns for his own condemnation. Knausgaard’s self-conscious theft of Hitler’s autobiography title assures us he will be on the reader’s side should she choose to reach the worst conclusion about him. His almost lawyerly recollection of life seems an effort to find sufficient evidence to support a farcically severe accusation from the outset.
The more one writes, objectively or not, the more conscious one is of letting the self become visible through the cracks, what Susan Sontag described as “a unity of temperament, of preoccupation.” In describing her aversion to rereading her own work, Sontag admitted, “Perhaps I don’t want to see how it’s all the same . . . it would destroy my illusion of endless new beginnings.” In the Beginning Was the Sea can be taken as an anticipation of this kind of anxiety of self-regard; it invents a literary form that permits confessional introspection without over-personalizing such introspection, anticipating (and perhaps evading) charges of grandstanding and exploitation.
González drives his story forward on a stream of mistaken hopes turned toxic. J. begins to drink more, first indulging in a once-a-week ritual of sitting with a bottle of aguardiente and some mangoes on the veranda. But soon the tedium of tropical days begins to rust his discipline and he becomes a daily drinker, feeding the kind of wounded belligerence that over-ripe romanticism can succumb to. Elena fills with a rage of her own, impatient with the locals who help operate the finca, people she comes to see as incompetent and deceptive. Searching for ways to begin repaying their bank loan on the property, Elena sets up a small store selling rice, sugar, cigarettes, and aguardiente brought over from Turbo and sold at a markup. The locals have little money and wind up buying on credit that will never be repaid. J. and Elena dip into their own stock just as liberally.
As scenes accumulate evidence for a coming breakdown, J. and Elena’s relationship becomes a storehouse of excess agitation and dread. There is a sense of voyeur’s alienation in the way González describes their relationship drifting into explosive arguments and physical abuse. After one drunken and frighteningly violent exchange, González imagines J. and Elena as “ashamed and afraid.” They are surrounded by a murk of trivialities neither can keep from transforming into flash points of rage, followed by post hoc attempts to understand how such innocuous events could lead to such severities. “Let’s not screw up our lives over this,” J. says, trying to remember the details of one fight through a morning fog of alcohol and exhaustion. “If neither of us can remember, then clearly we weren’t ourselves.”
It’s easy to experience a parallel sense of disembodiment reading In the Beginning Was the Sea, a book that simultaneously works as a political parable, a novel, and a mournful confessional. In a way, the book has most power in the third category, a reminder that not all forms of memoir require literal sequencing of first person events to offer access to a writer’s inner life. Midway through the book, González makes a brief acknowledgement of the distancing effect of his approach, first quoting directly from Juan’s diary, which reveals a loving generosity in clipping out J.’s vulgarisms. “I’ve no idea what the fuck [Elena] sews with that machine,” Juan writes, sulking and irrational, “but I hear it whirring all day long.” After the failure of all his other plans to make money from the finca, Juan was forced to sell the island’s small patch of forest for timber to avoid having the bank repossess the property. Of this hateful compromise, Juan writes that he’s been forced to “practice the Ancient Arts of Axmanship, as the local poets call it. Make way for civilization, you puny fucking kapoks!”
A few chapters later, González includes an excerpt from his own correspondence, revealing a similarly vulgar and unmanaged looseness in language, a free-flowing, conversational style that underscores the care given to the rest of the book’s stoicism. He recalls, for example, one of the last times he saw J. and Elena together, “in the middle of a serious session — booze, dope, pounding music . . . playing the role of beatnik rebels, people who don’t believe in anyone or anything, hardened by the sea and salt air — you get the idea.” His brother and Elena had become repulsive to him, caricatures drawn in an “unbearable” severity by their own deluded choice of environment. And: “Obviously, the next morning, when they were hungover, they were back to being their friendly, normal selves.”
Observing these transformations puts González in the familiar binds of memoir shame. In an interview with Bookanista, he describes “some regrets about using those terrible events to make literature. But after a while, little by little, I understood it was a way of coping with what happened, and that the writing of the book was my way of understanding the tragedy.” Yet these kinds of public claims to the details of private lives are the first cause of what makes a form of writing shameful: not the need to create a narrative of a life in order to grieve its loss, but to transmit the end product of that process as an object presumed to be of value to the world outside the self.
The book’s title is drawn from still another appropriation, taking as its epigraph a quotation from Kogi cosmology that González came across while thumbing through a book in a Bogotá museum. Discovering this quote casts the sea as both progenitor of all life and the lone survivor after life’s extinction — the spirit of that which was to come and … thought and memory” — and helped unlock for González a kind of permission for his more personal transgressions. “I thought immediately I could use this for my book,” he told Bookanista, “that if I could keep the story at this philosophical, poetic level, I would be OK.”
Attempts to re-objectivize the memoir from a position outside the memoirist have led to some of the most important writing for González’s generational peers. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick was a generational high point, a demonstration of the theory that writing about one’s self in the third person is a radical act, especially as a woman, made doubly powerful in its serving as pretext for a loving and persuasive historical analysis of Hannah Wilke’s art, less an act of mourning what has been lost than a heroic gesture of loving what had never really been found. While Knausgaard’s excavation of his life and billboarding of the people in it is an over-theatrical self-indictment, a bad joke about how far a man can go in enumerating his own flaws in search of condemnation while, ironically, drawing only critical admiration, Kraus’s writing is heroically aware of how, as a woman, even just starting a project of self-analysis is to ”play the fool.”
In an interview with Brooklyn Rail, arguing that “confessional” is not a good description of her work, Kraus asserted that the memoir is a work in which “everything else becomes merely a backdrop to the teller’s personal development. It’s an utterly false, uninteresting view.” The irony of having written about personal subject matter is that it binds a person to all of the artificial conclusions and illusions of progress and summation that come from it, forcing a writer to live in the uncanny afterlife of his own aphorisms. When I wrote my own memoir in 2012, an assembly of short topical essays, each of which was trying to mask a heartbroken obsession that I realized, after the fact, more accurately conveyed the patterns of my pathos than any conscious self-portraiture could have, I called the whole thing “shit,” a collection of thoughts that “couldn’t quite be digested and instead needed to be excreted.” And in organizing all of those personal fragments, presented as self-suspicious failures of performance, a new and unconscious structure was indeed perceptible. But over the years, that unconscious structure lost its novelty, its articulation was no longer a discovery but an artifact oxidizing in time. I no longer had any power over my own language and thoughts. In the end, writing had reduced me to a reader, alternately enchanted and repulsed by the fact that someone wrote what I had written.
Behind these anxieties is an apprehension of how other people’s evaluation, how tenuous and often out of control we are during a process where we are defined in relation to other groups and political histories. The personal becomes not so much a shelter from these fears but a universal starting point from which we attempt, in various ways, to reconcile with everything alien or unknown that is outside us. Living in an age of hyper-memoir produces its own kind of frustration at seeing our most common form of rhetoric become an infinity of new beginnings, people turning themselves into tributaries filling a miasmatic swamp of perpetual unarrival.
González’s novel works as a memoir of an outsider looking in on another life, trying to remain objective while slipping deeper into sorrow. “I became like two people,” González said of writing his brother’s death. “As I was writing the book, I tried not to have an opinion, to keep it distant and cool, objective. But I was very angry with him, with Juan my brother. I thought it would be good if I put that anger in the book too.” When the moment of J.’s murder finally arrives, after Elena has left him, as has his original ranch staff, the killing feels startlingly contained, less the result of an accumulation of horrible decisions than a split-second snap of misunderstanding that calcifies into a permanent and reductive characterization, a tragic incongruity that leaves both J. and his killer — an aging ranch hand from the deep country — no room to be anything but antagonists of one another. After the studious buildup of suspense and endangerment coded into all of J. and Elena’s troubles on the island, González captures the ultimate smallness of the murder, the bathos of a handgun being fired, the stillness that immediately follows.
In closing, González turns not to moral encapsulation or psychological templates to make sense of his brother’s life. He offers no wisdom or judgment. “He does not know,” he writes of J., “the strange flower that was his mind has withered and now, for him, there is no memory. He is lost forever in the vast totality that is now and always has been, this living thing that is at once remote and always present, this thing that is but water, though it blossoms as love, terror, wisdom and desire; water that blooms as beauty, blood and passion though always and ever it is water.”
González’s existential disintegration comes alongside a formal reintegration of the Kogi epigraph, transformed in the book’s final paragraph to prose instead of poetry. The words run on in a shape bound by the edge of the page and not the intentions of the line break, language stolen from a culture González knew next to nothing about, but which bore the weight of a life he wasn’t there to witness ending, written in a fashion meant to hold up his own grief and disorientation as its own strange flower, an emotional germination meant both to stand on its own and be inseparable from all that surrounds it, an individual “you,” straining to emerge from a ceaseless body of discovery, loss, memory, and their insatiable repetition.