Anakana Schofield – Author of Martin John and Malarky

Colum McCann/Patrick McCabe article

The last time I ran into the Irish writer Colum McCann,  he was on a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, had thrown away a hundred pages of his novel, Zoli, that morning and “wasn’t in great form over it.”

“Oh, that always happens,” he recently said cheerfully in an e-mail. “It was the toughest book to force my imagination into. It was a whole new world. I had to start from scratch.”

Zoli (Orion/McArthur & Co., 352 pages) is loosely inspired by the story of a travelling Roma poet, Bronislawa Wajs (nicknamed Papusza), who was feted by the Polish literary establishment but then exiled by her community because, in “writing things down,” she was perceived to have “collaborated with the enemy.”

As you read the novel, the scale of McCann’s incessant hunger for what he calls “the small story that tells the big story” and the rewards of his having set himself such a challenging excavation are both evident and enthralling. Thankfully, he’s not some self-appointed expert tinkering around with exotic subjects for the sake of it. Instead, he manages to grab his characters around the upper arms, bring them toward him and push them to life through his page.

“I suppose what I’m interested in is empathy,” McCann, who is coming to next week’s Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, tells me. “My job is to live outside the immediately apparent parameter of myself and tell the story that I think needs to be told.”

It is his resolute discipline, and courage of “writing toward what [he wants] to know,” that enlightened him on earlier literary journeys, producing memorable, significant novels like Dancer and the highly lauded This Side of Brightness. If you open his first short-story collection, Fishing the Sloe Black River, you won’t need to read past the first story, “Sisters,” to realize how well his work endures. It’s as resonant and relevant today as it was when he put the print on the page.

For Zoli, McCann, a father of three young children, says he felt a “vast cultural responsibility.” He travelled to Slovakia, visiting Roma camps, initially with two guides and then staying alone. He diligently applied himself to understanding the much-derided Roma people and their experience, the same way he lived with the homeless in the tunnels of New York for This Side of Brightness and grappled with ballet and Rudolf Nureyev for Dancer.

Zoli is a timely European novel dealing with issues of ideas of ethnic identity, politics, exile and the voiceless. Such issues are dancing their way across European borders and should soon be ringing in the ears of the European Parliament and governments worldwide.

New-York based McCann inspires us to be courageously informed as readers and writers; he’s awake to the role of art beyond the daily buoyancy of his own career and ego. He has a reputation for being active in the American Irish Historical Society, generously supportive of his fellow writers and a decent bloke, which are remarkably similar traits to those of his hero, John Berger, the thinker, writer and artist.  “I walk along with his every word,” he says of Berger.

You get the sense that as he trots with his present humility, his important and unique stories will continue to be told.

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Another Irish novelist you may wish to discover at the festival is the entertaining, forthright Patrick McCabe, whose work intrigues in an altogether different way.  McCabe, who is probably best known for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, both adapted for the screen by Neil Jordan, appears to be entering a new, musical chapter in his work. Historically, this Monaghan-born and -based author penned novels so gregarious and original in tone, they’d have your legs swinging while you read them. Your stomach would also be turning because their content was often very dark, resulting in the mistaken notion he was a gothic novelist. “My previous work had too much colour in it to be gothic,” he disputed by telephone last week. “So I’ve finally written a gothic novel.” He went on to explain that he “wanted to write a scary, spooky story about contemporary Ireland, drawing on the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

His new novel, Winterwood (Bloomsbury/Raincoast Books, 242 pages), has a much quieter tone to it, yet maintains his now-legendary streak of darkness. It’s an unsettling lament of the life of a man (with multiple name changes) as he struggles to reconcile his own sexual abuse and separation from his daughter and wife. Redmond Hatch is a chameleon of a creature who initially has you in the palm of his hand with his despondent wailing about how everything went wrong for him. But ultimately he sent me into a spin because, infused with this undertone of creepiness, you’ve no idea quite what he’s going to admit to next. There’s a universality to this story, which curiously manages to maintain its claustrophobia while its pace lifts like a horse hopping fences. McCabe is a master of architecture over subtlety; in the hands of a less capable writer, some of it could verge on the ridiculous. Fear not: He has a hand tightly on each rein and commands the story in and out of the corners, up and down his octaves assuredly, exactly as he wills it. It’s a compelling and disturbing tale right up to the last full stop and McCabe, as he ages, has become a better conductor. “Winterwood is a departure from my other novels,” he concluded. “It doesn’t bother with humour, but then I am getting older. Every book demands its own style. This is a story of a man of advanced years and, hopefully, more wisdom.”

Colum McCann appears next Friday and Saturday at the writers’ festival; Patrick McCabe, next Friday and Sunday.

Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Oct. 14/06, page C8