Imagine a crowd of people so terribly wounded they will never walk again. What would they like to see? Perhaps a barefoot six-year-old dancing? Now imagine this child and his feelings. Such imaginings became a four-year travail for Colum McCann (This Side of Brightness, etc.), culminating in his fifth novel, Dancer, a fictionalized life of Russian ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev.
McCann, who describes himself simply as an "Irishman from suburban Dublin," has nothing in his background relating to Russia, let alone ballet. Nor did he interview those close to Nureyev. "Hopefully, if people read this, it will make them buy a biography," he says somewhat shyly. "I decided very early on that was something I wanted to avoid. I thought my duty was to my imagining him."
Stretched out on a couch, McCann looks little worse for wear after four years retracing and retelling Nureyev's steps around the world. Dancer is a kaleidoscopic whirl from wartime Bashkiria (a Muslim, Tatar-speaking region near Siberia) to 1950s Leningrad, the 1960s European jet set and the gay meat markets of 1970s Manhattan, following Nureyev down the steep slope of AIDS, stopping just short of his death in 1993. More significantly, it is a noteworthy literary achievement: a seamless narrative with a constantly roving POV.
"I did think before I started that I wanted to create a symphony of sorts," he says. "I wanted the violin to come in at a certain time, the piano at another.... I was listening to a lot of the great Russian composers when I was writing. At the very end, my big ambition was to bring them all together. I wanted every single instrument to strike together in one passage." He pauses. "I did try that. It was a disaster."
Dancer moves smoothly from one storyteller to the next: a drunken former schoolmate; a reclusive English cobbler; the exiled husband of Nureyev's first dance teacher; Andy Warhol's diaries; Nureyev's "sister" (a singular amalgam of his actual three); and (briefly) Nureyev himself, portrayed as insufferably arrogant, incredibly complex, an aesthete out of sync with his times. "I've always believed the last word will have a huge influence on what the next word will be," McCann says. "No matter that these stories are coming from different angles, different countries, different continents, different people—I think that the sound of the previous story is important to the next."
"Coming from Ireland, the music of stories is tremendously important to me," McCann explains. "I came from a family that told stories [his father is a retired journalist] and from a culture where storytelling is prized. So you don't just look at the way a word looks against another word, which is important as well, but the sound of it that carries through."
The value of linguistic and imaginative expression is not an excuse to shirk research, however, and McCann's took him from the venerable 42nd Street vault to military hospitals in Nureyev's hometown of Ufa, Bashkiria. This contributes to a continuous background color in Dancer's rich tapestry, the bloody red of violence. The first 12 pages, depicting the Russian front over those terrible "four winters" of WWII, may remind readers of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan: "They shared cigarettes, and when their tobacco was finished they smoked sawdust, tea, lettuce, and if there was nothing else they smoked horse shit, but the horses were so hungry they hardly shat anymore either.... They sang songs to their own absent children, but moments later they put the stub of a rifle in an enemy boy's mouth.... Crows patrolled the aftermath, fat on the dead, and then the crows themselves were shot and eaten."
McCann insists the violence has an integral role in shaping the novel. "I really was enchanted by the idea of first public dance being in a hospital. But I started thinking, what does that mean? What happened to create that hospital, and therefore what happened to him [Nureyev] the moment he entered it as a six-year-old boy? How did that shape the way that he approached the world, his dance?" Moreover, there are the multiple depictions of Nureyev—from various angles and characters—obsessively honing his craft and cultivating his mystique through a potent mix of arrogance, spite and sheer bloody-mindedness. Then there's McCann's take on the form itself: "Ballet is extraordinarily violent. A doctor told me that ballet is the second most dangerous activity after boxing. I look at them and say, how did you do that with such ease? All that training, the hours, the bullshit, then they get onstage and the violence is turned into something beautiful."
The author is prepared for accusations of excessive literary license, a subversion of facts for the creation of fiction that is as old as writing itself. "Nureyev was a sort of centrifugal force, a character around whom a history could be told, a sort of alternative history of the second half of the 20th century," McCann says. "For some he was an arrogant shit, for some he was a world-class pianist, for others he was just somebody to fuck, for others he was someone they wanted to be seen in public with. How do you take all of these things and make them believable in the face of contradictions, which we're all full of? That's where fiction can breathe a little more easily than nonfiction.
"I doubt the word 'fiction,' because I'm not sure it's the best way to describe what we do. I think the best way is that we're storytellers. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, you're telling a story, and this arbitrary line between what's real and what's not real is a very interesting thing to me."