Guest Observation: Colum McCann

The other morning, the soon to be late and already lamented “Talk of the Nation” featured the Irish novelist Colum McCann. He was talking about a new work, “Transatlantic,” which features fictional stories of historical figures who made the crossing, one way or the other, between Ireland and the New World. (One story involves a historic adventure I’d never heard of before, the first aviators to fly nonstop across the Atlantic: Alcock and Brown, eight years before Lindbergh (who made the first solo nonstop flight).

Former Maine Senator George Mitchell and his role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland is one of the other “Transatlantic” subjects. McCann read a brief, poetic passage of the Mitchell section of the book:

“This is a section where I just wanted to create a myth for the idea of what he was doing, which was receiving all the words.

“It is as if, in a myth, he has visited an empty grain silo. In the beginning, he stood at the bottom in the resounding dark. Several figures gathered at the top of the silo. They peered down, shaded their eyes, began to drop their pieces of grain upon him. Words. A small rain at first, full of vanity, and history, and rancor, clattering in the emptiness.

“He stood and let it sound, metallic, around him, till it began to pour, and the grain took on a different sound, and he had to reach up and keep knocking the words aside just to get a little space to breathe, dust and chaff in the air all around him. From their very own fields, they were pouring down their winnowed bitterness, and in his silence, he just kept thrashing, spluttering, pushing the words away, a refusal to drown.

“What nobody noticed, not even himself, was that the grain kept rising, and the silo filled, but he kept rising with it, and the sounds grew different, word upon word falling around him, building beneath him, and now, at the top of the silo, he has clawed himself up and dusted himself off, and he stands there, equal with the pourers, who are astounded by the language that lies below them.

“They glance at each other. There are three ways down from the silo. They can fall into the grain and drown. They can jump off the edge and abandon it. Or they can learn to sow it very slowly at their feet.”

Neil Conan’s interview with McCann, embedded below, is a good one. His reading of the passage above takes place after the 12:00 mark in the audio.

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