Thursday, January 6, 2011

Relentless narrative of uncovering (Books - The Story of the Night by Colm Toibin)

Com Toibin's 1996 The Story of the Night is a multi-strand coming-of-age novel. In it, Richard, a young gay man in 1980s Buenos Aires comes into himself, learning to love and shedding his naivete so as to operate successfully in the changing political landscape of his country. Argentina tries to grows up to become a playing partner in the international political and economic community. Gay life in Western culture comes out of the closet - in some ways by dint of political determination and to some degree it is forced out by illness. Toibin's three stories meet in the person of Richard. The Story of the Night is compulsively readable, not because the political story is an entertaining thriller, as the blurbs claim. I find Toibin's skill more subtle (or his talent more blatant) in that he takes a rich intellectual understanding of the politic landscape and writes plot of political complexity, keeping its events clear as well as tension-filled. At the same time, he writes a gay love story straight from the heart, that is uncliched, full of character-driven details. For example, the wooing of Richard by the character who ultimate becomes his love (I won't spoil the plot by telling you who) is not a pick-up in a bar, or a furtive cruising in a public bath, the more common available options during this period, it happens instead during a car ride, not with a clever line or a quick grope, instead the character reaches over and unties Richards shoe laces. The ensuing love story is deeply sad, but also triumphant.

Toibin's writing is clear-eyed and smart, but not fussy.
During he last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen, and Mrs. Thatcher. As the light in her eyes began to fade, she plastered the apartment with tourist posters of Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard and magazine photographs of the royal family; her accent became posher and her face took on the guise of an elderly duchess who had suffered a long exile. She was lonely and sad and distant as the end came close.
As I revisit the novel's opening paragraph, I can see how Toibin established a novel about resisting death - the death of Richard's mother, of Richard's innocence, the death throes of the British Empire in the struggle with Argentina over Las Malvinas, the end of the average Argentinian's being able to sweep under the rug the knowledge of the thousands of political murders carried out, which is not unlike what society tried to do with AIDS in the 1980s. If it didn't touch them personally, one could pretend it didn't exist. But while symbols may help us hang on to what has already passed, life marches forward. If we live longer and we don't shut our eyes, increased knowledge is inevitable. One may either be its victim or live with the truth and act out of its consequences. Toibin's narrative mirrors this relentless current of uncovering. The writing seems powered by an engine, I couldn't stop reading it, and yet the story is also deeply beautiful. The idyll doesn't last, but the resulting love is deep, the result of open eyes and passion-driven hearts, looking forward.

2 comments:

C.B. James said...

I loved this book and second your strong recommendation. I hope I don't fall into exoticism, but I loved that the setting was a new one for me, a gay European living in Argentina. This novelty led to a fascinating novel. A novel that is much more than a simple novelty, by the way.

Ted said...

I was taken by the setting too, CB. It's high on my list of future travel destinations. And it was my first book by Toibin.