By Tomás González
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg
174 pp. Archipelago Books. $16.
“The Storm” is a short, dry but occasionally gripping novel about what happens when a storm tests the already strained ties of familial and economic relationships during 24 hours in a Columbian vacation destination.
Twin brothers Mario and Javier and their father are going fishing to catch food for their father’s thriving hotel. As the brothers get ready–and mentally prepare themselves for another fishing trip full of parental guilt trips and angst courtesy of their father’s despotic and hypercritical grip on them–to head out to sea, their mother, Doña Nora, has great battles, romances, and prophetic spasms with her “throng,” a Greek chorus of violent schizophrenic delusions. The amount of narrators expands by another ten people as González shows us the story through the locals, hotel employees and tourists’ thoughts, which are more like reviews and diary entries than actual stream of consciousness thoughts.
Eventually the father and his two sons get out to sea and the narrative jumps back and forth between fishing stories, reminiscences about the brothers, and paranoid prophecies about their potential demise. Oh! By the way, there is a storm on the horizon, that looms over everyone like, well, a storm cloud.
The first few chapters (or hours) of the novel are much like rowing out to sea: arduous, repetitive, and not as fun as what follows. The lines seem stolen from cheap soap operas or bad adventure novels and pile high as González tries to set up the narrative. “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.” You’ll sigh when you read this on the first page and begin to worry that it’ll continue for the next 170.
And for the most part, it does. There are a few interesting shifts that speed up the story and allow it to move beyond the constraints the author has set upon it. Doña Nora’s manic episodes read like Greek tragedies (and sometimes like Monty Python skits); the hotel employees’ and tourists’ thoughts sound like documentary interviews and fill in the landscape with anecdotes about the odd history of the family; and Mario and Javier’s inevitable fight against the storm and their father read like Hemingway on amphetamines. However, most of the interesting parts happen at the end of the novel when the storm is at its full power, that is after a hundred plus pages of dry plot exposition and setting the stage with surprisingly boring stories about fishing.
The shifts in perspective from on the boat with the father and brothers to off the boat with the mother and the tourists try to alleviate some of the mundanity and claustrophobia that the reader feels after spending too much time hearing the father nag his sons out in the middle of the sea. The mother’s thoughts are often hyperbolic and make connections that only she and the reader can see. “The stars seemed unsteady, as if any moment a hand might sweep them away like a sand mandala… ‘Om, om, om!’ Nora shouted at her lungs, still gazing at the stars.”
But the other breaks provided by the tourists could have been cut in half since most of them end up repeating the same rumors and doubts about the sons and fathers’ survival. At some point you want to reach into the book and shake them and start screaming, I GET IT EVERYONE THINKS THEY’RE GOING TO DROWN, THAT YOU ARE IGNORANT ABOUT THE PLACE YOU ARE VACATIONING AT AND THAT JAVIER READS A LOT. MOVE ON.
One character development technique that González uses is the stunted or mentally stubborn character, which he uses for two of the central characters, the father and Mario. This technique creates horribly one-sided characters that you can predict what they will say before they even open their mouths.
Mario drones on and on about how horrible existence is– “My life is pathetic, man”–and his father won’t stop trying to get his kids to be like him, “Anyway I’m going to make something of these two morons. They must have inherited at least a little bit of my fire.” People in real life are that stubborn but people are hypocritical, nuanced and occasionally change their minds, a fact that González seems to pessimistically think doesn’t apply to most of the characters in his world.
It doesn’t help that the author is also trying to make allegorical connections for you. Javier, the occasional optimist, tries to get the other characters out of their self-centered pits by looking straight into nature, which is uncertain and shifty. “Look, look at that sunset! he thought then, as if the orange on the horizon were presenting the conclusive argument against his brother’s darkness, his own darkness, and even the cruel and involuntary darkness of the madwoman back on shore.” Great image, but couldn’t the reader have come up with that connection on his own?
Although “The Storm” tries to be an strict allegorical tale about the exploitative nature of tourism and the generational differences that plague all families, it works best as a story about a vacation destination full of chaos in the form of storms or schizophrenic delusions that cannot be contained. In other words, it is at its best when the author steps away and lets the story roll free.