LALT is proud to feature an exclusive preview of Andrea Rosenberg’s English-language translation of The Storm by Tomás González, which will be published by Archipelago Books in November 2018. Read more about the novel on their website:
“Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing and promoting outstanding literature from around the world. In our first twelve years, we published over 160 books from more than thirty languages. Archipelago is always striving to find visionary international writers whom American readers might not otherwise encounter. We hope our translations will increase cross-pollination between readers, writers, thinkers, and educators across borders. Archipelago partners with like-minded organizations both in the United States and abroad – local independent bookstores, community centers, literary and arts organizations, universities, foreign institutions and embassies, and reading series across the country – to host a wide array of literary events, including interviews, discussions, and readings.”
I first discovered Tomás González on a friend’s recommendation and fell for his work pretty much instantly. There’s a stunning lyricism to his writing combined with a down-to-earth orality, and I found the juxtaposition fascinating and immensely challenging to replicate. As is often the case in González’s work, The Storm alternates perspectives, switching from the protagonists who are heading out to sea to fish as a storm bears down on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to the assorted family members, employees, and tourists who remain behind on shore. This multivocal quality adds to the feeling of building chaos as the storm intensifies.
Saturday, 4:00 a.m.
Angrily, but with great care, Mario placed two oars in the boat and went to his father’s house to fetch the gas cans. Javier had already brought the coolers full of ice and the jugs of water, and by now he’d be back at his bungalow, boiling the breakfast eggs and pouring coffee into the thermoses. Mario had been born two hours after Javier and frequently wished he’d never been born at all. The thirty-foot motorboat was a sky-blue fiberglass craft, and a Coleman lantern glowed on one of the benches. Despite the chill at this early hour, Mario wasn’t wearing a shirt. The heat of his resentment toward his father kept him warm enough.
Had he bothered to notice them, he’d have admired the net of stars stretching over the vault of the heavens. But though he looked up at the sky, he didn’t see the stars or refused to see them. Javier knew about ursas major and minor and southern crosses; Mario was the one who could take an outboard motor apart and put it back together with his eyes closed and navigate the gulf even though he knew nothing about crosses. A bolt of lightning, its tentacles reaching down toward the horizon, caught his eye, and he also noted the absence of wind. His notice was not born of admiration, since he wasn’t the sort to admire the shape of lightning or the wind or the absence of wind, but because he was alert to everything related to the sea and fishing.
The guest who’d been up drinking all night in the only bungalow besides Mario’s that was lit up at this hour turned off his Carlos Gardel album and switched out the lights. Between Gardel, Olimpo Cárdenas, and the gale of resentment inside him, the twin hadn’t been able to sleep much that night. The tourist’s bungalow was only a few meters from his, and even though he didn’t have the music turned up loud, it was still audible. But Mario wasn’t upset about it; these disruptions were part of his job. The guests were paying to get drunk at the seaside, and that’s how he made his living, how all of them did.
He went to the rear patio of his father’s bungalow. The old man was currently a mile away, off the coast by the airport, pulling in bait with the cast net. Mario picked up two red gas cans and placed them in the prow of the boat. Then he went back for the other two. The insects flung themselves against the Coleman lantern, wheeled around it. The waves unfurled almost silently over the sand. By the bungalows, bats were flitting among the coconut palms and the almond trees, though neither Mario nor anyone else could see them at the moment. Maybe God was aware of them, but as far as Mario was concerned, God didn’t exist.
They were preparing for a full day and night of fishing in a place some two hours out to sea, just beyond the mouth of the gulf. The plan was to bring in seven or eight hundred pounds of mojarras, blue runners, sea bass, crevalle jacks, Atlantic tarpons, lane snappers, and black margates, which the guests, perpetually ravenous thanks to either the sea air or their hangovers, would wolf down in the hotel restaurant with fried plantain, coconut rice, and tomato-and-onion salad, as they’d been doing during the high season, day after day, for many years.
Mario placed the other two gas cans in the boat and went to fetch the mangrove-wood pole that they used to push against the sandy bottom. Beside his bungalow was bungalow number two, where his mother had been talking to herself day after day, also for many years. The bungalows went from one to fifteen, with the numerals crudely painted in white on raw pieces of wood and mounted above the front doors. His was number three; his brother was in nine. The father’s didn’t have a number. Actually, Nora hadn’t been talking to herself—she’d been talking to a large number of people, sometimes in a quiet voice, sometimes a little louder, but almost never shouting. Despite being a “total nutcase”—that’s how the twins referred to her condition, though they loved their mother—she was lucid enough to realize that her husband might come and shut her up.
Mario took the pole and carefully settled it on one side of the boat. He headed back up to the hotel kitchen. They would be taking a pot of beans, which the father himself had prepared, and one of rice. The people here on the coast didn’t know how to cook them properly, the father always used to say, so if you wanted to eat a good plate of beans, you had to make it yourself. Picking up the pots, Mario muttered, “Old bastard thinks he’s the cow that shits the biggest turds. Any dumb-ass can cook some beans. It’s not rocket science.”
Resentment warmed his skin, but only frosty gusts reached his heart.
The cluster of bungalows was called Hotel Playamar.
He put each pot in a plastic bag and then placed them both in an empty Styrofoam cooler, no ice, where they nestled snugly together, and carried the cooler out to the boat. I’d better not forget the arepas, he thought, and went back to the kitchen. The old bastard will kill me if I leave those behind. Along with the bag of arepas and the soft drinks, he grabbed the large, very sharp knife that the cook used to slice the fish into steaks. He stashed the arepas in the cooler with the beans, and the Coca-Colas in one of the coolers with ice that they’d use later for storing the gutted fish. He tucked the knife into the cooler too, since he couldn’t think of where else to put it. He’d forget to move it somewhere else, and his father, once they were out at sea, would tell him to open the cooler and hand him his first Coca-Cola:
“What’s that for?”
“Just in case.”
“In case what?”
You’re a total loser, the father was always insinuating whenever he spoke to his sons.
Mario went back to his bungalow to collect the bottle opener and his fishing rods, but first he went by his mother’s bungalow to see whether she was sleeping or talking with the throng. Nora had turned off the air conditioner and was sleeping, or at least she wasn’t talking, though you could still sense the crowd of people. The throng was always there, whether she was awake or asleep. Mario didn’t make any noise. He didn’t want to wake her up if she was sleeping, or let her know he was there, since they were going to be leaving soon and she’d try to start talking to him. Mario didn’t think Poor thing or What a sad life. The twins never thought or talked about their mother in those terms; they’d simply been by her side forever and had done everything they could to make sure she didn’t suffer any more than God, who didn’t exist, had decided she should. And when some unwitting guest, out of nosiness or empathy, told them her life was too hard, they’d respond, “You think so?” and the tourist would refrain from offering any further opinions after that.
The father, his chest furred with gray hair, his legs muscular and veiny, emerged from the darkness, shirtless and wearing athletic shorts, carrying the cast net over his shoulder and a mesh backpack full of sardines and shrimp to use as bait. He came up to the boat and put the bait in the other cooler with ice. To someone looking in from the outside, who couldn’t see the orange glow of hatred in the son’s belly nor the greenish flame of contempt in the father’s, time would seem to keep flowing the way it always had.
The father saw that everything was ready but didn’t say anything. Mario felt relieved, and then angry.
“Where’s Javier?” his father asked.
“I’ll go get him.”
Mario went to his brother’s bungalow and, just as he expected, found him in the living room, reading in his hammock under the bulb dangling from the ceiling, wearing yellow athletic shorts and a red nylon waterproof jacket. Javier had the same intense black eyes as the father. He was slightly nearsighted and wore a pair of small, sturdy glasses that always fogged up in the sea spray and he’d clean them with the little towel he kept draped around his neck when they went out in the boat. There were books all over the bungalow: in the living room, in the three bedrooms, and even in the bathroom and kitchen, not in bookcases but piled in stacks of ten to fifteen, as if it were some kind of warehouse or storage facility.
On the floor beside the hammock were his fishing rods, the plastic bucket with the reels, and the woven Arhuaco bag where Javier always carried a book, a pack of cigarettes, a pocketknife, and an assortment of smaller fishing supplies: hooks, sinkers, and so forth. He also carried a jam jar of marijuana and a pipe. When he smoked pot on the boat, Javier tried to keep the smoke from blowing toward his father, who disapproved and always told him to knock off smoking that crap. Beside the bag were the four large thermoses they always took with them, full of very sweet, very strong coffee, and a plastic bag with ten unpeeled hardboiled eggs.
“Are we ready?” Javier asked.
Mario was steering the boat. The father, though he’d grown up in the mountains, considered himself a better boatman than his sons, but for a while now he’d enjoyed lounging as they sailed, the wind on his weathered, handsome, clean-shaven face. He was seventy-one years old and looked sixty. A bolt of lightning sliced through the sky at the horizon, like a crack extending down the side of a bowl. Mario grabbed the Evinrude’s steering arm with his left hand. The sea was a black mirror.
Nora had sensed the twin’s presence, but she preferred to let him think she was sleeping. The engines squealed like a hog at slaughter, and the chorus of prophets chanted from the ceiling:
“Distant murmurs that illuminate the stars. Squall that trembles and chatters.”
“Yes,” Nora replied. “These things happen. That’s life.”
December twenty-ninth. On the twenty-third her husband, the King, had with his own hand stabbed a pig down on the beach that had been making such a racket it sounded like a dozen pigs and the boat is moving away moving away. Dawn won’t be long now.
“It keeps dawning and dawning. What for?” Nora wondered aloud.
“Feverish sun that chars the beaches, sun that lays waste,” the throng prophesied, though the scorching sun that did the father such harm was still many hours off.
The ceiling of pine planks was low and oppressive, but it was cold in the bungalow. They’d taken Nora’s fan away after the night she stuck her fingers into its blades, and she’d suffered the heat for a long time because the father refused to buy her an air conditioner. When the twins bought one with their own money, the father initially refused to install it because of the electricity cost, but in the end he relented and now the whole world shivered when she forgot to turn it off.
“Knock-knock,” someone said at the door.
It was Doña Libe, a neighbor who came by every morning with her youngest daughter and invited Nora to take a walk on the beach. Sometimes she went with them and sometimes she didn’t.
“Orange you glad it’s Doña Libe!”
Nora wanted to walk. Doña Libe and her daughter always came before sunrise and the three would watch the slow birth of light on the mangroves. The daughter was sixteen years old and mentally retarded. The neighbor was pale-skinned, not very tall, about fifty years old, stout and thick-waisted. She was always wearing a bathing suit and had her eyes all made up. They saw the first herons emerge from the trees where they’d been sleeping and wing their way toward the swamp that lay to the south. Doña Libe asked if the boys had ended up going out this morning, and the throng was about to start singing, prophesying to the neighbor, just imagine it, the possible disaster awaiting them, when Nora hissed at them and signaled and winked and made other movements with her eyes to keep Doña Libe from noticing:
“Shhh, all of you shut up. Not now! What are you thinking? Idiots!”
“Who are you talking to, Doña Nora?” Doña Libe asked, smiling. She and her husband owned a small hotel half a league away, off in the direction the herons were flying in.
“Yes, Doña Nora.”
“Oh, nothing,” the neighbor answered in a singsong voice, smiling again.
Out at sea there was no sign of disaster. The lights of the trawlers were visible further out and, not far from shore, the little lights of the smaller fishing boats headed to the spots where they would drop anchor.
“You see?” Nora told the members of the chorus sternly, scolding them for giving Doña Libe the opportunity to pry.
They’d been walking along with the water up to their ankles. Doña Libe was illuminating the sea foam with the flashlight. To their left, the crabs scuttled in terror across the pure white sand of the gulf, as if the Final Judgment had been announced and they were looking for holes to crawl into to elude God. To the right the throng was now moving along in silence, but a few of them got in the way and blocked her view, and Nora had to lean sideways a little to see the lights out at sea.
“Move out of the way, would you? You’re blocking my view,” she told them in a voice that had grown strangely flutelike because of her illness, and the neighbor looked at her curiously. But not the little girl, who because of the confusion in her brain didn’t engage much with her surroundings.
That’s the direction the boat would go.
Nora thought about her sons and wished for them to return unharmed. The chorus misinterpreted her concern as permission to begin chanting: “Watery moon that glimmers. Moon that crucifies verse.”
“Hey now, hey. Everybody pipe down,” Nora interrupted in her frail voice.
“They talk a lot, huh?” Doña Libe remarked, always kind and willing to put herself in other people’s shoes.
They were blocking Nora’s path. Her worry about her sons in the boat was blocking her path too. The throng, in chorus, seemed eager to proclaim it, and she to shush them so her neighbor wouldn’t notice. Nora didn’t discount the possibility that Doña Libe was part of the plot against her hatched by the death squadrons on her husband’s orders, and she eyed her neighbor suspiciously, seemingly ready to believe she was part of a conspiracy.
“He’s a bootlicker,” she said suddenly, furious as a bird, referring to the president. “A lackey, a lackey!”
“Oh, you shouldn’t talk about people like that, Doña Nora,” the neighbor said. She didn’t know what lackey meant, but it hadn’t sounded very nice to her.
They walked past Doña Libe’s hotel and waved to her husband, who, in the light of the streetlamps, was watering the lawn with the hose as if it were a phallus, Nora thought to herself. He was dark-haired, tall, with a mustache, sixty or so, and his light eyes gleamed when he smiled. They kept walking toward the marsh, past the vacation houses that belonged to people from Medellín, which were occupied by their owners at this time of year. It was five thirty in the morning, and the owners and caretakers were still asleep. Nora stood looking at the slabs with marine designs set into the wall of one of the houses until Doña Libe gently tugged her by the elbow and managed to get her spirit to relinquish those images of ships and sunsets that had her so engrossed. Then the three of them went back to the part of the beach where the still-dark water soaked their ankles.
“Don Alberto looks like the devil,” Nora said suddenly, and the neighbor smiled with pleasure, besotted.
“Devilishly handsome and gallant,” she agreed. “Isn’t that right, sweetie? Isn’t your father very handsome?”
The neighbor said the girl had ended up a little dim after a bout of meningitis, but Nora always thought she’d been ill-constructed from the beginning. It looked like she’d been cut clumsily out of a piece of cardboard with scissors and ended up with a flattened skull, a large hooked nose, and very close-set eyes.
“Simmer down, all of you!” she shouted as a preventive measure. Where a captain rules, a sailor has no sway, she thought. Hopefully the twin would stab the sailor’s captain. And hopefully not. He could also drown him—they say it’s a sweet death. A sweet death in saltwater, what do you say to that.
Out on the smooth sea, the fishermen’s canoes looked like little scratch marks. They’re going to empty out the sea. They aren’t going to leave anything for my boys, Nora thought bitterly.
“Oh dear, I don’t know when I’ll be able to take a vacation,” she said then, a weary expression on her face, and this time the neighbor looked sincerely moved and surprised.
“And where is it that you work, Doña Nora, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with all those nobodies.”
They walked almost to the little huts right at the edge of the marsh. Soon they would fill up with tourists who’d come in on buses from Sincelejo and Montería to spend the day dancing, eating, drinking, and swimming in the sea. Now the sand was clean and swept, impeccable, and it seemed impossible that in just a few hours it would all be covered in refuse. One Sunday afternoon, Nora had come with her children and spotted the tidy cylinder of a piece of human excrement bobbing in the sea, rolling on the waves, while the crowd of oblivious tourists, who had arrived early to start strewing paper and bottles everywhere, splashed around beside it. Now, whenever she saw the palm-thatched huts, Nora always felt the urge to turn back. It was as if that cylinder was still there, rolling on the waves, waiting for her.
They returned home, where the neighbor said goodbye and went off with the little girl, who never said goodbye.
“Storm that roils the compass. Sextant that cannot find the horizon.”
“Yes, I know, you don’t have to keep repeating it. It’s annoying. You know what? We should have a party instead.”
She made sure the doors and windows were firmly shut, turned down the air conditioner, and they had a party.
Translated by Andrea Rosenberg