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Andrés Ibáñez’s novel Sea of Eden starts with a plane crash. A passenger jet on its way from Los Angeles to Singapore crashes in a remote part of the Pacific and around 90 of the passengers aboard the Boeing 747 survive. A frantic rescue operation is quickly launched by those that are least hurt and most composed, and our narrator and a few other pivotal characters come together to get the rest of the survivors to shore on a mysterious nearby island, which turns out to be full of strange happenings, unsettling visions and sinister inhabitants.
At this point, anyone who watched the TV show Lost will be thinking that this all sounds a little bit familiar, and there are indeed some striking similarities with the series. For example, in both we have a doctor who quickly takes charge and for whom science is the driving force, even in the face of the island’s mysteries (Joseph / Jack); we have a man who regains the use of his legs after the crash, turns out to be an excellent tracker and hunter, and who seems to be the most attuned to the mysteries of the island (Wade / John Locke) and we have the charismatic con-man with a shady past who hides a hoard of essential supplies for his own use and for blackmailing others (Jimmy / Sawyer). The island itself is also very similar – strange voices and happenings, hostile groups who already live there, abandoned outposts and underground labs, and an impossible geography. Equally, where some of the characters in Lost are named after philosophers, in Sea of Eden we have characters named after writers (even our narrator’s dog back in America is called Ballard). This is all deliberate though; Ibáñez himself acknowledges that he was watching the series when he started writing the novel and has talked about the similarities in interviews, saying: “The situation is parallel, some of the characters and some of the situations of the story, but the development of the story and the main characters are different than in the series.” And that is true. Sea of Eden is not a plagiarism of Lost; it starts from the same premise but goes off in different directions.
Ibáñez has written a huge novel (the edition I read is 617 pages) and he does an excellent job of hooking you in from the beginning with the fast pace of the crash and rescue operation. Our narrator is Juan Barbarín, often referred to as John, a Spanish composer living in America. He takes swift action in the aftermath of the crash and in doing so establishes himself as a person who is sensible, pragmatic and organised, teaming up with Joseph, a doctor, and Eileen, a flight attendant, to get people off the plane. It’s a brutal, visceral opening to a novel, and Ibáñez doesn’t spare the reader any of the horrors or the sense of extreme chaos and confusion. And yet in the middle of all this, he writes the most calming, beautiful passage describing the sea:
“The colour of the water was unlike anything I’d seen before. Not blue, not green, but a perfect combination of the two. It was radiant turquoise, a colour so exquisite I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid my eyes on; the colour of a peacock’s train transformed into the living skin of the sea. Staring into the water, the turquoise colour morphed into a rich green that glimmered with flecks of gold, lilac and pink.”
When it becomes apparent that help and rescue is not arriving soon, if ever, the survivors start building shelters and looking for food, and a sense of a society emerges. As time passes and hunger and boredom set in factions form, hedonism blooms and before long the more religious and conservative members in the group start trying to impose their own strict moral code on the rest. As you would expect from a novel of this size there is a large cast of characters and it can be hard keeping track of them and their backstories, which we are told in varying degrees. We hear about some characters in fascinating detail and their stories are almost novellas in themselves. Others, including the actress Nicollette Sheridan, are mentioned a few times in passing but are mostly absent from the narrative or else serve as a device to move a particular plot point along. There is also a mysterious Chilean writer called Roberto B, who may or may not be (and it turns out isn’t) Roberto Bolaño. Juan finds many of his old friends and acquaintances among the crew, which is perhaps a little too convenient as a narrative device but serves as a decent segue into telling various parts of Juan’s backstory. As events unfold we find out that he is obsessed with music (especially romantic music), women and the nineteenth century composer Anton Bruckner, especially his Eighth Symphony. Despite being long dead, Bruckner also appears frequently throughout the novel as a character.
There are a lot of different themes at play in Sea of Eden, and it is a work of many facets. On one hand we are reading an epic adventure novel that mostly moves along swiftly and which has plenty of twists and turns to keep us invested and guessing what might happen next. At the same time it is a novel of impossibilities, with events that contravene the boundaries of what we generally consider to be possible. We have ghosts, UFOs, biblical miracles, buildings that move about through space and time, and a garden from Juan’s childhood in Madrid that appears in different places, all while a blue giant reminiscent of Doctor Manhattan stalks the island indiscriminately shooting lightning bolts at the people on the ground and burning them to a crisp. It is a Matryoshka Doll of a novel, containing stories within stories, and Ibáñez himself says that it contains three novels – one Mexican, one American and one Japanese. Sea of Eden has a whole world collected inside its pages, where absolutely anything can and does happen and as much as it’s a novel about the fantastical and the weird, it’s also a novel rooted in flesh and blood, and the needs, wants and desires of human beings.
Another theme is the end of belief. Ibáñez said that he started writing the book at a time of crisis, when it seemed that both the world around him and things inside him had started breaking. In a dishonest world run by machines and corporations, we need to find a different more humanist way to live. When the survivors realise that they are stuck on the island they have to reassess their behaviours and their perspectives, and adapt to a new way of life. And the novel proposes a new way of living: the return to a more spiritual life, coexistence with each other and with nature, and a new path that comes from learning, music and silence. As such it’s also a deeply cultural work and heavily references musicians, writers, painters, philosophers and scientists.
Ultimately, though, Sea of Eden is a love story and many plot points eventually converge on this aspect. Juan loves women and has had many affairs throughout his life. He enters into romantic entanglements with a couple of his fellow survivors but he has only ever really been in love once, with his childhood sweetheart Cristina. It is a love that he let go through foolishness and it troubles him deeply, colouring and influencing all of his relationships since. In this place full of impossibilities and surrounded by friends who share his history, he is forced to confront painful memories and make some difficult choices, and in the end it is this love for Cristina that unifies everything. The novel also acts as a love letter to humanity and nature, art and culture, the things we should always strive to pursue no matter the odds and which, when everything else is falling apart, are the very things that might just save us.
By Andrés Ibáñez
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Oneworld Publications, 624 pages
Jane Wright is a web editor, writer and photographer. Her short fiction has been published by Litro, Sirens Call Publications, Crooked Cat, Mother's Milk Books and Popshot Magazine. She lives and works in Manchester.