Colm Toibin's The Story of the Night

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On my end table, beside the couch, is a stack of “to-read” books. It’s an ever-growing pile, and a situation not ameliorated by the intermittent arrival of yet another book that always manages to sneak its way to the front of the queue. But there are times when I face the dilemma of not knowing what to read next. Of course I want to read all of these books—and I do—only not all them suit whatever I might be craving at the moment. Recently, after ferreting through this pile, I settled on an almost unexpected choice, Colm Toibin’s 1997 novel, The Story of the Night, and I realized what it was I’d been hankering after without even knowing it: some good writing told from the perspective of a gay male protagonist—something, I realized, I don’t get enough of.

The novel revolves around Richard Garay, the son of an English mother and an Argentinian father. Mostly set in Buenos Aires, the story follows the linear path of his life, from Richard’s youth and early sexual experiences to adulthood and a financially successful career. Because he is fluently bilingual in both Spanish and English, he finds a job teaching ESL, a poorly paid dead-end job that he hates. One student he privately tutors is Jorge Canetto, a good-looking young man Richard is certain is gay but learns that he isn’t after coming out to him. Yet the two remain friends; and because of his friendship with Jorge, Richard becomes a regular dinner guest at the Canetto household. Jorge’s father, Senor Canetto, is a rich and powerful man with influential connections that include powerful military men who confidently predict Argentina’s victory over the British during the Falkland Islands War—or the Malvinas, as they are referred to in the novel. It is at one of these dinners that Richard meets Donald and Susan Ford, two American diplomats who forever change the course of his life. Given that he has a foot in each culture, the Fords realize he can be a useful liaison for the Americans as a translator, guide, and cultural insider, particularly during the period following the humiliating defeat of Argentina after the war and the influx of foreign specialists during the country’s subsequent economic restructuring under the IMF. Similarly, Senor Canetto, who has presidential aspirations, wants Richard to use his American connection to get the Fords to support Canetto in his presidential bid. Naturally, Richard abandons his English-teaching job and finds success in his new career, which eventually sees him become a kind of consultant. Running parallel through the novel is the story of Richard’s sexual forays, his unrequited crush on Jorge, furtive attempts at picking men up on the streets, visits to bathhouses, and the fear of being found out and exposed. At one point, Jorge’s brother, Pablo, returns from a long sojourn to the US. Like his brother, Pablo is also strikingly good-looking, but he comes across as arrogant and disdainful of Richard, and at one of their early meetings he deliberately wallops Richard with a tennis ball during a match. Eventually, Richard runs into Pablo at one of Buenos Aires’ two gay bathhouses and soon the two become intimately involved, a relationship that becomes quite tender to watch.

As a story, this summary outline doesn’t sound terribly prepossessing (who’d have thought the privatization of the oil industry would be so interesting?), yet there was always so much at stake, and it became a book I couldn’t put down. On the one hand, the novel is a historical glimpse into Argentina, particularly during the years of the Falkland Islands War, the Peronist presidency of Carlos Menem, and post-war economic restructuring—a glimpse that also reveals societal attitudes towards LGBTQ people during the years of the AIDS crisis. But this is also the story of the narrator’s own slow but subtle evolution, as his sexuality goes from being a clandestine part of himself to something much more open and accepted. Toward the novel’s end, one starts to realize—and I hate to have to quote the dust jacket—that this is, in fact, a kind of love story, and a defiant one at that, especially in the face of AIDS. The Story of the Night was a definite surprise, and one of the better books I read this year.