Review: Colm Tóibín’s The Story of the Night
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Catapulted to popular recognition and fame after the scintillating adaptation of his book Brooklyn for the big screen in 2015, Colm Tóibín is a force to be reckoned with. Now, more and more readers are paying attention to the brilliant works of this Irish author. To characterize Tóibín as an Irish national, however, is to overlook his extensive experience living in other countries and his close contact with diverse cultures.
His stories may be set in Spain, Argentina or the US, but the reader would never for a moment think that they were written by someone who’s not a native of those places. Tóibín has that chameleonic gift of putting himself in other people’s shoes. He understands the universality of the human soul.
Published in 1996, The Story of the Night is his third book. As the reader will infer from the title, it is a dark tale. Some think of it as historical fiction, a mystery story, a thriller, or a political novel. As a matter of fact, it’s all that and much more.
What it is not is what many readers have come to expect from a gay romance (is that a genre all its own?). True, the story has a gay protagonist and it’s packed with explicit sex scenes that may shock more prudish readers. The homosexuality in the book, however, is not meant to titillate readers of that particular sexual orientation… or of any orientation, for that matter.
In his hauntingly beautiful novel, Tóibín draws precise and disturbing parallels between loneliness, the impossibility of fitting in, and the lack of a unified identity in people (remember the dilemma of the protagonist of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf? Man, wolf, and how many other selves do we contain?). To explore these issues, the writer uses a series of tools: the condition of the protagonist’s hidden homosexuality, his half-Englishness, the pervasive toxic atmosphere of the military dictatorship in Argentina in the last century, and the struggle of immigrants to adapt to a new country.
Tóibín writes in a direct and unadorned language. He’s a master of applying this apparent simplicity to convey powerful atmospheres that remain with the reader long after the experience of reading the novel is finished. Reading his work a second time is strongly recommended, as there are layers of nuance to be discovered and explored.
The plot can be summarized as the story of Richard, a young, closeted-gay man born in Buenos Aires, the son of an immigrant English mother and an Argentinian father. Because of his looks – blond haired and blue eyed – he’s always seen as a foreigner. Richard attends an English school as a child and a teenager, then teaches English as an adult. On top of this, he is raised by an overbearing and domineering mother, a woman who will not forget for a second that she belongs in England and should never have come to this savage place at the end of the world. The result is a man with a fragile and unstable sense of identity.
The secrecy, mystery and loneliness of Richard’s life as a closeted gay man is cleverly mirrored by Tóibín’s choice of historical moment. The book is set in the Argentina of the 70s and 80s, where a brutal military dictatorship is in control, and the Falklands/Malvinas conflict with the UK is being manipulated by the local military as to unify the divided population of the country. The horror of the political context (with the torture and disappearances of anti-coup militants) and the low self-esteem of Argentinians (badly shaken by losing the war against England) is worsened by the outbreak of AIDS at the beginning of the 1980s, a horrific disease that deepened the prejudice against the gay community, as well as decimating millions of young people all over the world, disrupting relationships and families.
The Falklands/Malvinas Islands
All of these elements are played masterfully by Tóibín, whose characters and readers are swept on a dark and unforgettable journey, dictated by the inexorable currents of history, its obstacles, people’s choices, and the resilience of the human soul.