It is with great pleasure that I can report that The Story of the Night (London: Picador, 1997), Colm Tóibín’s third novel has completely blown away the clouds that had gathered after I blogged about my feeling of mild disappointment after reading his latest, Nora Webster. For reasons set out below, it also had a special resonance for me; not the more obvious one.
Richard Garay, son of an English mother and a long-deceased Argentinian father, grows up in Buenos Aires. Although fluent in both parental languages, he saw himself as Argentinian and knew himself to be gay; something he had not yet shared with his mother. Garay’s story begins around the time his mother dies.
During the last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs Thatcher. As the light in her eyes began to fade, she plastered the apartment with tourist posters of Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard and magazine photographs of the royal family; her accent became posher and her face took on the guise of an elderly duchess who had suffered a long exile. She was lonely and sad and distant as the end came close.
She died before the war and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness. I know she would have waved a Union Jack out of the window, that she would have shouted slogans at whoever would listen, that she would have been overjoyed at the prospect of a flotilla coming down from England, all the way across the world in the name of righteousness and civilization, to expel the barbarians from the Falkland Islands.
And, of course, I am hooked already, for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that in 1957 I sailed in the British aircraft carrier HMS Warrior from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands directly to Puerto Belgrano where she moored just astern of the General Belgrano, later to become better known at the time of the Falklands war. As one of the ship’s officers, I met Admiral Rojas whose flagship it was and who, when he died, asked for his ashes to be scattered over the sea where the Belgrano went down.
While Garay’s mother might seem a mildly eccentric figure of fun, the novel is a poignant account of the coming of age and the eventual ‘coming out’ of the narrator. He recounts his story in the earlier chapters against a background of the invasion of Las Malvinas and the confidence-shattering defeat of the poor conscripts in the Argentine army despite the heroics and bravery of their air force. It was the time of the Generals and of the Disappeared when it was better not to get involved in any political discussions. In the aftermath, under the Menem presidency, Argentina clawed its way back to American-encouraged capitalism and privatization, and Richard discovered his own sexuality and met the man he would love for the rest of his life.
But remember! This is the 1980s and the gay community was beginning to take the full impact of HIV/AIDS; all of which means that a book that starts off seeming to be light-hearted, moves, page by page, into darker territory. Colm Tóibín handles the transition with style and fluency.
Given that this blog likes to avoid any suggestion of plot spoilers, there is little else that needs to be said other than that I, and I hope you, will soon be reading more Tóibín.