Tomás González writes for PEN Atlas about the act of literary creation, the qualms over writing about family tragedy, and how one shocking night on a beach in Colombia changed his life
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
The Year 1977
The gulls walked along the beach
inscribing track marks in the sand.
Then once again flew out to sea
and left their track marks in the sand.
How brutally it fell, that year, the tragedy!
Then came the water,
and washed away the tracks. Inland
the palm trees, mangos,
from the collection of poems Mangrove
My brother Juan was killed with a shotgun by the manager of his farm in the gulf of Urabá, in northern Colombia, one night in April 1977. He died at thirty-six. Juan and I had a close friendship; my affection for him was boundless. Words cannot measure the grief I felt at his death.
At the time, I was twenty-six years old, and I had been writing more or less regularly for eight years. I was working on a book of short stories I never tried to publish, a collection of poems that also remained unpublished and a short novel which ultimately did not work and which, years later, I rewrote and published as a long short story. I had developed a certain aptitude for seeing the literary possibilities in those events that we call real and perhaps this is why I quickly realised that Juan’s death had the qualities of a tragedy. The aesthetic qualities, I mean. That was all it took.
Although I was devastated by his death, I studied it coldly, as a craftsman might study a fallen tree and calculate the size and shape of the canoe that might be made from it. Obviously, I had qualms before I started to write the novel, since it meant exploiting family tragedy to create literature; nevertheless I started to write.
Thirty-six years have passed since Juan’s death; thirty-one since In the Beginning was the Sea was first published. After so much time, it is difficult to know which details in the novel are taken from life and which are incidents or places that I had to imagine, invent, or infer from other events in order that the novel could take form and become real. With the passing years, the facts which, though simple, had been difficult to comprehend even at that time, in that place, gradually disintegrated and crumbled, losing their reality. The novel, by contrast, has survived – kept alive by readers – and it could be said that it is more truthful or more real than the events that prompted it.
Over the years many people read the novel, which was regularly reprinted. Perhaps it will continue to find readers for some years yet and come to be the sole trace of what happened on that night in April 1977 on a beautiful beach hemmed in by sea and forest just south of Panama.
The novel was my attempt to prevent everything being swept away by the wind. I no longer have any qualms of conscience about having written it. Now, it seems obvious to me that literary works stem, and have always stemmed, from memories, whether recent or remote, whether our own or those of others. Where else could they originate?
I believe that it is impossible for human beings to fashion out of whole cloth – still less to create – that only nature, or God, can create and we are left to work with what already exists: recreating, reinventing, that is to say recalling it in all its horror and its harmony.
It is our safeguard against death.