Monday, 6 April 2009

How to live or how not to live – that is the question

Buenas Noches Buenos Aries by Gilbert Adair

When Gideon leaves England to start work at the Berlitz language school in Paris, he’s a shy and introverted young man with little experience, who has only just managed to come out to himself.

So the male staff room at the school, where he finds himself surrounded by largely gay colleagues, provides an intoxicating atmosphere.

But while everyone around him seems to be having fabulous sex lives, Gideon’s – despite his perpetual horniness – is one disaster after another.

And then, into their carefree lives, comes word of a new “gay cancer” and so the Aids era begins.

Gilbert Adair has created an extraordinary novel here. It’s short, but it packs an enormous punch.

And he pulls off a remarkable feat – of making you comprehend why someone would continue to deliberately and quite consciously put themselves at risk of contracting HIV/Aids – a situation that has occurred in real life. Indeed, some gay men have deliberately sought sexual partners with HIV in order to contract the virus themselves.

That seems completely absurd – insane, even – so it makes Adair’s achievement all the more praiseworthy.

Yet the book is not about death. Rather, the story – a memoir by Gideon himself – is a song to life and to learning to live. Perhaps a pre-condition of learning to live is an understanding – an acceptance – of one’s own mortality?

But this is also about community and the need to belong. For Gideon, even his immediate family had been distant and rather cool. His first sense of belonging is in the staff room.

We all need to feel that we belong somewhere. For some of us, this is obvious and we probably never even have to think about it. For others, it’s a question of choosing our tribe, of having to find our place in the world.

Gideon’s tribe is that of homosexual men. And when the tribe is threatened, as it is by Aids and by the homophobia that that brings to the surface, he faces a decision: whether to turn inward again or to walk into the storm, with his community, and with his head held high. Whether to hide away or whether to live as fully as possible, on his own terms.

And that choice, of courses, gives this a sense of romantic authority.

Adair’s prose is very good – light as a feather and full of wit. And as the plot unfolds, he has created some passages of real power, moving from fear to celebration.

It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, for the judgmental or for prudes – there are some graphic descriptions of gay sex, plus innumerable penises, some tumescent, some not.

But if you fall outside those categories, then Adair has written a very, very good book indeed. And arguably a very brave one.

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