His Socks, His Silences
- The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín
Picador, 312 pp, £15.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 330 34017 4
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.