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Several ways to die in secret

THE STORY OF THE NIGHT by Colm Tibn, Picador pounds 15.99
The Great Aids Novel has yet to be written, perhaps - but it is understandable, and laudable, that it should be one of the most pressing subjects of the moment. Colm Tibn, in a stylistic departure that may be personal as well as professional, has set a story of male passion against a background of Argentina in the time of the disappearances.

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.