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Ireland’s Universal Writer

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
This story has been told before but it is worth the retelling. The following e-mail was received about seven years ago. “Started Colum McCann’s “Zoli” yesterday – it’s already ruined one night’s sleep. Did you know that some of the story takes place within fifteen or twenty miles of where my father grew up? I went there once in 1962 with him and his sister. 

We stayed a few days at an old and grand spa hotel in the Tatra Mountains. One day we hired a car for an excursion. They had the driver stop the car in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere. We got out and they pointed to a group of farm buildings – maybe half a mile away – but would go no closer for fear of being recognised. No further explanation was offered. The house in which my father was born, I was told, was the one with the distinctive colour roof........So what I want to know is, what the hell is an Irishman living in New York doing writing a book about Slovakia during the war?”.

“Started Colum McCann’s “Zoli” yesterday – it’s already ruined one night’s sleep. Did you know that some of the story takes place within fifteen or twenty miles of where my father grew up? I went there once in 1962 with him and his sister.  We stayed a few days at an old and grand spa hotel in the Tatra Mountains. One day we hired a car for an excursion. They had the driver stop the car in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere. We got out and they pointed to a group of farm buildings – maybe half a mile away – but would go no closer for fear of being recognised. No further explanation was offered. The house in which my father was born, I was told, was the one with the distinctive colour roof........So what I want to know is, what the hell is an Irishman living in New York doing writing a book about Slovakia during the war?”.

The scene described by Andrew Herkovic – one of our Book Club members – in the e-mail could have been the blueprint for the opening scene in the McCann novel he had just received in a package. The novel itself is a magnificent piece of work. It afford the reader wonderful insights into the daily ,lives of the Romany gypsies as the Second World threatened to obliterate them, insights which demonstrate the harsh social and personal disciplines they had to endure in order to survive.

In the book McCann underpins the traumatic effect the War had on Europe, destroys any romantic notions we may have of the gypsy life and does this in such a powerful and effective way that a librarian in California wondered how an Irish writer living in New York could write so tellingly about the Slovakian society his father had grown up two generations previous. What Herkovic did not realise was that “Zoli” bears all the hallmarks of the typical McCann novel.

Colum McCannAlthough born in Dublin on the 28th of February 1965, McCann is the antithesis of the Dublin writer.  His native city hardly ever appears in his writing and when it does it is almost certainly in a context alien to the Irish capital. In fact, you are more likely to find a McCann character on the Steppes of Russia, in the mists of Slovakia (as we have seen) or among the denizens of the New York underground. It is McCann’s genius that he is equally at home in all of these diverse scenarios. Among his great achievements here are “Dancer”, a fictional biography of the Russian Ballet Dancer Nureyev and the aforementioned “Zoli”, the story of a Romany Gypsy singer during and after the Second World War.

Probably his greatest achievement to date has been “Let The Great World Spin” the winner of the Impac Award, in which, without missing a beat, he weaves in and out of all the cultural traditions that make up the New York melting pot and is equally at home with all of them whether they be Irish, Jewish, Italian, Porto Rican and in doing so, presents an almost unequalled panorama of the human experience that is the so called Big Apple.

In his most recent novel, “Transatlantic”, Mc Cann employs the same technique as used in “Let the Great World Spin” but does so in a different way. Whereas in the New York novel, all the stories told are contemporary, in this new and first, for McCann, Irish novel, the stories have a historic chronology which is intriguing and fascinating. We move from the world of the freed slave Frederick Douglas through the aviation feats of Alcock and Brown to the negotiating powers of John Mitchell and the brokering of the Good Friday Agreement.   McCann gives all these watershed events in terms of the personal narratives and those that surrounded the main protagonists, the servants, the chauffeurs, the journalists and is so doing humanises them to such a degree that we find the suave John Mitchell having a hole in his sock darned by his chauffeur’s sister.

Perhaps, from the reader’s point of view the most exciting thought is that McCann himself is not yet fifty and there is the promise of yet more to come. Given the breadth of McCann’s literary vision and his narrative genius, there is no knowing where he will bring us next or how he will get us there.