Embracing his Argentinian side
Antonia Logue welcomes a narrative master
Saturday 28 September 1996
War, love and South America: the novel by Andrew Lloyd Webber? Well, not quite. As far from squeaky musicals as he is from Garcia Marquez's magic realism, Colm Toibin in his third novel moves beyond anything he has done before: the Irish high court judge in The Heather Blazing, the Irish woman gathering her life together in Fifties Spain in The South, his first novel.
In content, his new novel could scarcely be more different. In style, however, he remains exactly the same: terse and spare, whatever the odds.
The Story Of The Night is set in Argentina in the Eighties. The narrator, Richard Garay, lives with his ageing English mother, who in turn lives in a fictional British Empire, replete with all the coarse iconography and devotion to Thatcher that comes from dotty jingoism. Richard is gay and teaches English for a living, but his daily life contains little more than casual sex with strangers and a fruitless crush on one of his pupils.
Then his mother dies, and suddenly the Falklands War arrives and departs within a matter of pages. After the war, Richard becomes involved with an American espionage couple who introduce him to all sorts of US oil- investors with a very specific political agenda: the privatisation of Argentinian oil. Suddenly he's rich, wearing suits, and being seduced - the classic American Eighties yuppie in a country raped blindfold by political corruption and savagery.
At exactly the point he chooses to embrace his Argentinian paternity, Richard evolves into both its antithesis and personification - a fact which is brought clearly home to him at an elite party given by the Americans, when he discovers that a former classmate he thought had dropped out of college had in fact been dropped out of a plane, drugged, somewhere over the ocean, one of Argentina's Disappeared ones.
Richard is saved from the consequences of a lifetime's unhappy sexual ambivalence by Pablo, brother of the tauntingly heterosexual Jorge, the pupil on whom he had such a crush. By falling deeply in love he abandons the constraints of his life hitherto, and repatriates his identity, not through Argentina, but through his emotional fulfilment.
Toibin's most consummate skill as a writer has long been his gift for pacing a narrative. This is achieved through more than structural finesse - both tone and subtle details of character are used like fine wire to bind ideas together. Moments that teeter on the edge of triteness are saved by Toibin's use of language. What begins as a story of political, social, and emotional isolation becomes a narrative of inclusion: the story of a much wider society.
The novel is filled with explicit sexual encounters, but the detached, precise narration never wavers, even when describing a grapple in a sauna. It's a style which initially affords the reader little chance of warming to the central character; but through this arm's-length approach Toibin manipulates and confounds the reader's judgement.
The intellect which has so conspicuously powered Toibin's writing career is fired here with a new ambition and purpose. Few doubted that Toibin had a great novel in him; the surprise is that it has come so soon.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 2 Maisie Williams has an excellent message for one confused fan
- 3 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 4 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
- 5 Kate Moss on the naked Calvin Klein shoot and the obsession that ended her relationship
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Burning Man festival revellers accidentally torch prehistoric artefacts in Israel
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote