The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold Bloom. I began to see my grandfather outside Dlugacz’s butcher shop, his hat cocked sideways, watching the moving “hams” of a young girl. I wondered if he had a penchant for “the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” I heard him arguing with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub. I felt him mourn the loss of a child.This is something Colum has been pondering for a while; though he hadn’t read Ulysses straight through before, Leopold Bloom has long struck him, I think, as the sort of fictional character who seems more real to some of us than others who actually lived. As he said in a conversation we published in PEN America 8: Making Histories:
On June 16th, 1904, Leopold Bloom walked around Dublin. My great grandfather walked those same streets, but Leopold Bloom is much more real to me now than my great grandfather, whom I never met. Sometimes the characters we create are more real to us than the six and a half billion people in this world whom we haven’t yet met. Do you think that fiction writers might be the unacknowledged historians of the future?Or, as he says in today’s op-ed: “Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.”
That need to “become the other” is something Colum discusses in his terrific conversation with Michael Ondaatje, which we published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. And Colum’s own capacity for empathy is evident throughout his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, which we excerpted in that same issue, and which is eagerly anticipated by many (it comes out next week).
The excerpt we published is not online, but you can read the book’s opening chapter here -- and you can listen to Colum and others read from that opening here.