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[18] The Story of the Night – Colm Toibin

The Story of the Night is an audacious and deeply moving novel about a man, Richard Garay, who hides his sexuality from his mother in during the time of military dictatorship. Stifled by his job, Richard is willing to risk new possibilities professionally and sexually. As the country is slowly changing and attaining peace, Richard tentatively begins to engage in a secret love affair that does not meet the approval of family and society. His mother is a proud, elegant English woman who will wreak a shrill revenge on Argentina when it is at war with the Britain for the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands She almost thrives too assiduously to preserve the English gentility, which she think the Argentineans lack, in her son. She mistakes Richard’s reserve, his reticence, and his distance from her as gentility, thinking it is real but understanding that it is fear.

The Story of the Night captures South America in its crucial times of political instability and turbulence: the ruthless purge of dissidents after the Chilean coup and the grim uncertainty of the transfer of power in Argentina. As England declares war on Argentina and sends its vessels southward in claiming the ownership of the Falkland Islands, Richard abrasively abandons his unpromising, stifling teaching job and to be under the wings of two American diplomats. The Americans have infiltrated the country, given grand parties with hired guests as a disguise, observed the political climate of the evolving country in order to ensure an orderly transfer of power to a civilian successor. Richard hoists a two-fold responsibility: to serve as a translator and to lobby the Americans in Senor Canetto’s candidacy for presidency.

The Story of the Night develops in the backdrop of 1980s in which Argentineans were concerned with employment prospects, inflation, social welfare, stupidity of war, and the menacing disappearances of dissidents. The novel delineates the country in a manner so stultifying and inconsolable as The Line of Beauty evokes the forlornness of England under Thatcher in the same decade. Both novels explores the impact that such rough political terrain exudes on an individual who makes choices in life that are deemed alternative. As Richard becomes an indispensable hand in assisting the privatization of oil industry, he has imperceptibly spiraled into an intimate relationship that is sealed with stalwart discretion. His desire to move from having a hidden, secret life with his partner to the aura of recognition, again, echoes to his counterpart in The Line of Beauty. Little do they know that a much greater threat, one is that more formidable than being out to their family, prey on their life together.

The Story of the Night tops the Lambda Literary Foundation’s list of 100 most significant gay novels of all time. Beneath the equanimity of the narrative voice are a poignant novel of intimacy, sex, death, and the fear of connecting one’s inner life with the outside world. It conveys the hidden fear of coming to family and the fear of elaborating same-sex relationship. The protagonist, on the other hand, is unrestrained in delineating the physical passion of his relationship, rendering it in shameless, exuberant details the scenes of his life that absorbs the needs for love and friendship. The prose exudes an explosive power of suggestibility, which bespeaks a pleasure that is only possible through a mutual understanding of physical contour and desire.

The Story of the Night, strategically puts its protagonist in a country at a time that people shut themselves off to question authority and train themselves not to see the truth. The immediate effect is an accentuation of the protagonist’s isolation from his family and the outside world out of his concealing of his sexuality. This tactic is not without flaw. The politics of the novel, which occupies over a third of the text, can render it dry and insipid. One point Richard Garay makes that really hits home to me (and thus redeem the dryness on all the politics issues) is that heterosexual engagement offers none of the excitement, effortless satisfaction, pure pleasure, and the sense of ease that he gets from being intimate with a man. The novel paints a powerful picture of intimacy and the deep terrain of relationship out of sheer suggestibility that percolates throughout the text.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the nice comments you left on my blog! I am sort of addicted to lists, so I am working my way (slowly) through the Modern Library Best 100 Novels. I am fond of ML editions, but I quite often look at the Penguin list too! It is fun reading things you wouldn’t normally. I really should have finished Shadow of the Wind by now. It is good, but I just can’t seem to make any serious progress (too many books on my pile at once?!). A lot of times I will get to a point in a book where I just can’t put it down, but I haven’t hit that spot yet with Shadow… I love Madame Bovary. I read The Awakening earlier this year and it is interesting to compare the two novels. I have only started The Sheltering Sky, but from the little I have read I think it is going to be an exceptional novel. The writing is wonderful. Bowles seems to have been a very interesting man!! I am looking forward to reading your book reviews, too.

  2. I’m building up ML and Penguin collection at home, separating the classics from the contemporary/modern literature. One thing I always ask acid readers is, do you ever make the distinction between plain fiction (like pop fiction) and literature? Would you classify a book like DA VINCI CODE as fiction or literature?

    SHADOW OF A WIND appealed to me when I read the blurb. The premise about a boy searching a book whose copies had all but one been mysteriously destroyed is quite promising. Lots of twists and turns! Hope you enjoy it more as the story negotiates into a deeper realm of suspense.

    I didn’t get THE SHELTERING SKY the first time I read it. A feeling of missing out the whole authorial meaning kept me from reading it further. Then I picked it up a again maybe like a year later and I enjoyed it. Books usually have that strange power in which it connects with you at a certain time of your life.

    I’m now a regular to your blog…loving it and enjoying every bit. Book hunting, like I say in my post today, becomes a hinge of my day just like eating lunch and doing laundry. Happy reading!

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