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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre