Several ways to die in secret
THE STORY OF THE NIGHT by Colm Tibn, Picador pounds 15.99
Sunday 29 September 1996
He does this to varying degrees of success. The sense of danger, secrecy and prohibition is heightened by the prevailing standards of a still-conventional society - our hero's consuming feelings are for a boy from a high bourgeois family - and horribly mirrored by the lies and evasions of the regime that fuels it. The reality of political thuggery, torture and murder are semi-secrets within this society, in a gruesome parody of clandestine sexuality: most people know, but some, Queen-Victoria-like, don't care to believe that such things happen.
Other secrets propel the plot. Bored language teacher Richard Garay, son of a hand-wringing British woman sunk in the misery of exile and a distant, long-dead Argentine father, throws in his lot with some Americans who are attached to the Embassy (loosely), the oil business (loosely) and each other (also fairly loosely), and whose precise purpose in the south of the continent cannot help but seem murky. Before Argentina, it transpires, Susan and Donald were in Chile - but they didn't know, honestly they didn't, and they feel so terrible about ... well, you know. With the new chic suits his employers choose come opportunities mercantile, social and sexual. Tibn is deft at conjuring vague images of potential menace, frighteningly imprecise ideas of the harm that even someone as blunderingly well-meaning as Richard might be capable of perpetrating in a system where everything is clandestine, coded, many-layered.
For anyone who knows the country or the continent even a little, the book is a fascinating mixture of the real and the imagined. The account of how an apparently preposterous provincial hick like Carlos Menem might make it to the presidency is all too plausible; the descriptions of Buenos Aires pavement life at night are often brilliant. Aficionados will know whether or not the gay bath-house scenes are as cutely observed. Richard's mournful apartment, unchanged since his parents' death, exudes so strong an essence as almost to constitute a character in the story; and there is a superb childhood episode when Richard and his mother, desolate and penniless after his father's death, visit his poverty-stricken aunt in the barren countryside. There's a classily camp portrait of an LA gay couple who come to visit, one of the pair already sick with Aids; it stays only just this side of caricature, but moves us nevertheless.
As Richard learns to live a little, courtesy of the Americans, and dissemble a lot, also thanks to his new employers, he falls deeply in love. Life seems to hold possibilities. But before long the plague claims its victims, a deadly sickness in a sick society, and notions of a future become redundant.
There's one thing that mars this potentially powerful book. If anyone wrote such love scenes, descriptions of sex and dialogue between heterosexual partners, it would be condemned as hopelessly weak and pappy. Tibn's is an explosively emotional subject, and we cannot fail to be shocked and moved by it, but his novel relies too heavily on the sheer naked impact of the death sentence we all face. Perhaps understandably, it defeats the artfulness of an otherwise assured novel.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
- 2 Christians: The world's most persecuted people
- 3 The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
- 4 Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
- 5 Denmark bans kosher and halal slaughter as minister says ‘animal rights come before religion’
Best TV shows on Netflix: 26 series to binge on
'Phallic symbols' found hidden in famous Pre-Raphaelite painting 'Isabella' by John Everett Millais
Top Gear Burma episode breached Ofcom rules over Jeremy Clarkson's racial slur
Game of Thrones season 4 blooper reel unveiled at Comic-Con 2014
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
A new Russian revolution: The cracks are starting to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace