Book review, Literary criticism

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image

Irish writer Colm Tóibín

Page one can tell you a lot about a book. Here, in  Colm Tóibín’s 1996 novel, The Story of the Night, the first paragraph is in the simple past tense with a first person narrator, Richard Garay, a young Argentinian with an English mother:

“During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher.”

The second paragraph is in the present continuous: now, the time of writing.

“I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. ”

The third paragraph returns to the past, to the story Tóibín wants to tell; set in the time before, and after, his mother’s death,

“She died a year before the war [The Falkland’s war, 1982] and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness … The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here [Buenos Aires] so far away from home.”

What you also get from page one is the tone, generated by a sparse prose peppered with well-chosen adjectives (“her shrill revenge”); simple and often short sentences; a formal style – few contractions; and of course the situation, melancholic and fearful, which has a lot to do with meaning: his mother a widow in a foreign country with an only child who is anxious about his future and his desires.

By the end of page one it is clear that the world of The Story of the Night is dark, devious, and dangerous.

“She was elated by the election of Mrs Thatcher. Here is a woman, she said, who knows what is right and what is wrong. And that is what we need here, she said. She showed me Thatcher’s face in a magazine, pointed to her and said how sorry she was not to be in England now.”

This direct speech without punctuation; more like indirect speech is curious since there are passages of traditionally punctuated direct speech. It may be that this direct/non-direct speech, which is reported by Garay, is his version of what was said which raises the question of his trustworthiness; yet he is our key to the story. He is honest with us about his desires, inexperience, political naïveté, and inaction; or is he?

The creation of verisimilitude is essential to the novelist’s goal: to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true, even if that truth only exists in the universe that the writer has created and in which the story lives. As in the theatre, the audience, the readers, are expected to suspend disbelief and believe what they are experiencing. With a first person narrative a strong and common way to do this is, ironically, for the narrator to admit what he or she does not know:

“I don’t remember how or why I began to talk about this.”

Curiously, such a line makes the narrator more believable; we all forget things, why we said things, how we met someone, how we know something. (This doesn’t work, of course, for a third person narrative who is usually all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like) But this not remembering makes him more like us. Tóibín uses this little technique to also heighten the tension surrounding the narrative which is steeped in the political uncertainty following the war with Britain over the Falklands, the Malvinas as the Argentinians call them. Garay is fearful of his professional future; he has a lowly paid English-teaching job which he hates; he is watchful of others who may be spying on him; he is anxious about others knowing his desires; and doesn’t know who to trust. However he is brave (or foolish) enough to take a gamble and becomes politically involved with the father of one of his regular students who introduces him to an American couple, Donald and Susan Ford, with whom he embarks on a friendship but with hidden motives and where the real story, what he assumes, is possibly false. These layers of acquaintances help to deepen the fear; slipping him deeper into a labyrinth. This mixture of political and sexual intrigue creates a sense of danger that always threatens to manifest itself: it is as if danger is around every corner, under every bed, over every page. Garay is constantly on edge and so are we.

Tóibín has been criticized for getting the history wrong and although the setting is a country we all know exists, Argentina, it doesn’t have to be that Argentina; it is the Argentina of the writer’s imagination and this a reader accepts or doesn’t. This is creative writing and one has to accept that it is all created; just because he writer uses the name of an exiting place the reader should not confuse the associational reference with the place itself; anyway, how many of us know the political climate, atmospheric geography, and bar etiquette of 1983 Buenos Aires? And would you take time out to research such things at such times? I think not. The writer wants us to use our knowledge, albeit skimpy and tabloid-ish, to his advantage: he is creating a world in which it is possible for us to believe that what we are reading is true (even if it isn’t). That is the point of fiction.

The Story of the Night is a love story, a tragedy, but also an affirmation: Tóibín is too much an optimist about love to let it be down-trodden by plot.

Tóibín has written previously about men, The Heather Blazing (1992) and The Master (2004), but not for over a decade; his last three novels have been about women; but of all his long-form work The Story of the Night is the most unusual. It has been reported that he has said that his next novel will be again about a man. We can all look forward to that!

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