Translated by Frank Wynne (from Spanish)
2014, I read Kindle edition
224 pages, relationship, escape to the land
Tired of the rushed, partying atmosphere of the city, a bourgeois couple moves to a run-down estate on the beach in rural Colombia. Here they can finally relax and get back in touch with nature, running a productive and self-sufficient farm. But is this retreat everything that they thought it would be?
As their idea of what the countryside would be like flounders, J. and Elena find themselves stuck in an untenable living situation. Nerves fray, fights break out, alcohol becomes the only way to escape. The local inhabitants do not live up to the expectations of the city people. It's a slow descent into chaos: never mind their relationship, will J. and Elena be able to escape with their lives intact?
Darkly humorous and based on a true story, this novel demonstrates the problems with assuming that a return to nature will solve all of your problems.
The problem with hippies
The most basic problem that J. and Elena encounter is that reality does not correspond to their intellectual ideas. Going "back to nature" is not simply living in a rural place; it involves a lot of hard work, adjustment to the local environment, and making good decisions. If you really want to "return to a simpler way of life," you must be mentally and physically prepared. J. and Elena are not. From the very beginning, it is obvious that neither of them are ready to give up some of their comforts and adjust to the situation they find themselves in.
Elena especially becomes very angry if anything is not to her liking. She yells at people, fights with the hired help, and refuses to go to the nearby village. She looks down on these dirty, cheating country bumpkins. This results in her ever increasing isolation from her immediate surroundings. She seems to like this isolation; it makes her feel superior, and her bad reputation in the village means that the locals will not bother her.
Besides the fact that this attitude is horrifically rude, it demonstrates the underlying fallacy in Elena's approach to "returning to nature." Rather than viewing these people as an example that she could learn from (in order to adapt to the environment), Elena considers them savages that are not worth a moment of her time. Where is her idealistic view of the people who live closer to nature?
J. is much better at learning from the local people, but he still seems to consider himself better than them. And he continues to make very bad financial decisions, partially because he is stubborn and partially because he doesn't understand what is happening around him.
Both J. and Elena have missed an important lesson: moving to a new location does not change who you are as a person. Deciding to change yourself changes who you are as a person. J. and Elena thought that they could continue to think the same way they did in the city, even though they were in a completely different environment. They chose not to learn and adapt because they considered themselves superior to their local circumstances. This proved to be their downfall.
As a novel
Reading this novel was much like watching an episode of Maury: you see things going constantly downhill for stupid reasons and you feel a sort of guilty, disgusted curiosity about what is going to happen. At least that's how it was for me. I did not exactly enjoy reading it, but it did keep my attention.
The biggest thing that bothered me was the descriptions of the locals, which were, simply, horrifically offensive. I understand that the author was describing them from the perspective of the city people, but it would have been better if the locals were not constantly demeaned through the whole novel.
This book is not in my shortlist for IFFP 2015, and I hope it doesn't end up on the official one either. You can read the other Shadow Panelists' opinions here, and my reviews of the other longlisted books here.
In the Beginning Was the Sea is available from Amazon and wherever books are sold.