Colm Tóibín’s frustrating new novel starts from a pleasingly skewed perspective: its narrator Richard Garay (less often, Ricardo) was brought up in Buenos Aires, child of an Argentinian businessman and an English woman who never adjusted to her new surroundings and clung in imagination to a country she had left in the early Twenties. She spoke to Richard always in English, and the combination of his flawless accent and fair colouring ensured that he grew up thinking of himself as English. It also enabled him to get work at a language school despite the mediocrity of his talent as a teacher. When Argentina invaded the Malvinas (the year after his mother died, thankfully, so that he was spared the inevitable chauvinism of her reaction) every-one expected him to be pro-British or at least divided in his loyalties. Instead he found himself part of a general mood of excitement and belonging, which afterwards people preferred to forget.
His general opinion of his country, though, is not flattering: he refers to ‘the strange lack of contact we have with each other here ... There is no society here, just a terrible loneliness which bears down on us all.’ He has particular reasons for feeling apart – he is gay – but he stresses that ‘it is not simply my problem, it is a crucial part of this faraway place.’ It is perhaps part of his mother’s legacy that he thinks of Argentina as ‘faraway’, though he has never been to Britain.
The mood of the book’s opening is a desolation that seems at first to attach to a sense of bereavement mixed with anger – Richard is sleeping in his mother’s bed, using the heavy sheets she kept for some occasion too special ever to occur – though her death is not in fact recent. The book’s account of growing up gay in a definitively macho country is also necessarily somewhat bleak, but the tone of the book comes to seem inert in its melancholy. Richard tells us the story of his life at an oddly even pace, free of the omissions and emphases that are integral to the workings of hindsight.
This must have been something of a challenge for the writer, yet the result is a negative achievement: a narrative with its resonance damped out, told by a character who makes no emotional claim on the reader. Even before puberty Richard reports that ‘I began to see the world as separate from myself, I began to feel that I had nothing to do with anything around me.’ He assumes his sense of apartness is the general condition: seeing his father naked he feels ‘how separate he was from everybody else, how he was alone too with his hairy body and his flesh, just as I was alone observing him, and we had nothing to do with anybody else, we were all separate in our bodies, all nobody to each other and everything to ourselves.’ Readers of David Plante’s novels may recognise this brand of solipsism, half stricken, half thrilled. It would be untrue to say that the conviction of solitariness goes untested in the course of the book, but by the end it has been vindicated at least as much as argued against.
Richard’s early sexual development is almost studiously stereotypical. He is a late and only child, born to a mother of 43 and a father of 50. His mother is the dominant figure even before his father dies, when Richard is 12. His first sexual experience comes in the immediate aftermath of the death, when Richard and his mother visit her sister in the countryside, under the mistaken impression that they will receive help. It is adolescent sex play, which he takes more seriously than the other boys and gradually realises is structured by a set of unstated rules, designed to preclude the closeness of communication that he wants.
Back in the city he starts trying on his mother’s clothes, from her underclothes all the way up to her hats. Remembered photographs of Jackie Kennedy in mourning shape his imagining of a life to come: ‘When people asked what I was going to be, I found it hard to answer. I had no vision of a real future in which I would take part, in which I would find a job and start a family. I wanted to be a woman, I wanted to have a tragedy and dress in black.’ When he tells his mother his sexual secret, he decides that she is not altogether displeased. ‘I think she thought it meant that I would not leave her; that no other woman would claim me; that she had me all for herself.’
All narrators are unreliable, but some narrators are more unreliable than others: it seems possible that the story of The Story of the Night is to be found in what the narrator ignores or cannot respond to, yet the effort to construe the book in this way is hardly easier.
On holiday in Barcelona apolitical Richard, who thinks the disappearances in his own country are apocryphal, meets a group of Chilean students. Eventually he realises that they are exiles. One of them has actually been tortured. This may be Tóibín’s way of showing that in real life tragedy is not necessarily something that leads to the stylishness of Jackie Kennedy’s mourning. Certainly the account of the torture, and the sophisticated awareness among the other Chilean students of its psychological aftermath, makes Richard’s self-obsession seem rather pathetic, but Tóibín chooses not to offer the reader a moment even of denied awareness on his part. One section ends with a fellow student’s account of Raul’s torture: ‘He told them the names of his grandparents first, they were dead, and they left him alone for days while they checked this out, and then they came back for him, and he thinks that he was tortured for a whole day and that was when he gave names.’ The next section starts without any response from Richard (‘We agreed that I would not tell Raul that I knew his story’). If Richard is numb, then he is numb to his numbness, but it also seems possible that the abrupt showing-up of the narrator is not an intended effect.
Back in Buenos Aires, Richard’s level of political awareness remains low. On the night of the invasion of the Malvinas, he sees a general mouthing ‘bloated rhetoric’ on television, and turns it off. Even when he reads the papers, he assumes that the English will only ‘make diplomatic noises’, and that the invasion is no more than a fantasy manoeuvre intended to give the armed forces a feeling of importance.
Yet when he is asked by his students if he supports Argentina’s cause, he has a little bit of political discourse at his disposal after all: ‘I said of course I did. I said that the entire history of the decline of the British Empire was about forcing the British to leave. The Irish had done it, so had the Indians, indeed so had the North Americans. The British would never listen to negotiations unless there was force, I said.’ The cogency of this analysis is a little suspect, coming from someone who takes no interest in world affairs and has been brought up by a mother of unbridled Anglophilia. On the previous page, after all, asked the same question by his fellow teachers, Richard has ‘no views on the matter’. The prominent place given to Ireland seems more traceable to the author than to anyone in the fiction. In this respect it is of a piece with the occasional mildly incongruous item of word choice, like ‘thumbtack’ for ‘drawing-pin’ or ‘press’ for ‘cupboard’.
The book is in three sections. The first takes Richard up to the end of the Falklands War, and ends with a faint note of quickening, as if the novel was at last revealing its central purpose: ‘And that is how I came to meet Susan and Donald Ford.’ The Fords are American. They work for something called the Institute for Economic Development, and have close links with the Embassy.
Richard is offered to the Fords as a translator-cum-liaison person by supporters of Señor Canetto, who wishes to present himself for backing by the United States as a candidate for supreme office in a reconstructed Argentina. The Fords listen to Richard’s pitch on Canetto’s behalf, without being particularly convinced. In general, though, they take his opinions seriously, and entrust him with errands of their own. When he performs well, the errands become important commissions. He gains access to a lot of money, at first semi-legitimately. Then he is offered (not by the Fords) a taste of the fruits of corruption. At first he refuses. Without his help, the Fords pick on Carlos Menem as a suitable investment for American cash and influence.
The acronym CIA is never applied to the Fords in his hearing, but Richard has no doubts about its appropriateness. As he says, ‘I never once underestimated them.’ But then it’s as if Tóibín repents of this note of near-intrigue, the hint of Our Man in Havana inherent in the situation of sophisticated politicos being guided by an unworldly solipsist flattered by their interest, and he sets out to retract it: ‘I did not understand that they would change things for me, and then they would fade. I was excited by them, by the idea that they had a hidden agenda here, by the idea that they were outsiders. But in the end there was nothing hidden: they both were simpler and more straightforward than I had ever imagined, perfect diplomats.’ All this turns out to be true – the Fords remain shadowy without becoming sinister – but it is an odd decision to defuse novelistic tension in advance with such scruple.
In the second section Richard’s confidence and self-esteem grow. It begins to look as if one of the themes of the book might be that gay men, damaged though they are by the world in which they grow, can become whole and functional. In the third Richard gets his reward, in the form of a passionate relationship with a man who did not seem likely at first to respond – was not even known to be gay – and seemed almost to have been chosen on that basis, as the perfect fantasy object.
The sexual aspect of the affair is idyllic, sometimes sketched in lightly (‘The following night we made love in my apartment’), sometimes recounted in detail. It’s clear that the two men are flexible in their sexual roles. Though Pablo has lived in California, Richard is by now the more self-accepting as a gay man, and urges his lover to tell his parents the truth. Knowing that Pablo’s mother is in her fifties, he imagines him telling lies for another thirty years. But Richard also has moments of reverting to the teenager who thought that a man who loves men must be in some sense a woman, even if by now the fantasy can also be projected onto Pablo: ‘I thought a few times of the pleasure it would give me if I were pregnant or if a child that was half mine was growing inside him.’
Richard’s idyll with Pablo may be intense (‘I loved everything about him, his underwear, his socks, his silences’), but it is clearly also too good to be true. Readers of novels are attuned to the workings of plot, and so we are likely to expect the disaster towards which the book moves to emerge from the particularities of the lives about which we have been reading. The disaster of The Story of the Night is not of this sort, and though it would be wrong to say that it is expected, it is a surprise only on the level of the double-bluff: no reader is likely to anticipate so obvious a dénouement. Gay identity has become to some extent an internationally accepted convention. Gay men can take their pleasures freely on their travels; they are also vulnerable to dangers both local and global.
Taken as a whole, the novel is difficult to categorise. Though it has a gay protagonist, it isn’t a ‘gay novel’, any more than it is a political novel, though it contains political elements, or a romance, though it contains romance. All its plot is subplot, and what drama there is is played by a supporting cast. Even Richard would seem like a minor character, if he forfeited control of the narrative.
In the normal course of things LRB readers would be entitled to expect less citation and précis, more analysis and definitive judgment, in a review such as this, of a novel by an established writer. The excuse must be that it is unusually hard in this case to discriminate between what is essence and what is accident – or to use a less sublime vocabulary, to discover any meat beneath the gravy.