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Zoli by Colum McCann

History through the eyes of a Gypsy woman who dared to break taboos

This is a fascinating novel about Zoli Novotna, a Slovakian Roma woman who breaks the taboo of her culture: she becomes literate. As a girl, Zoli learns to write from her adored grandfather, but this forbidden skill marks her forever as an outcast.

Colum McCann's haunting novel traces the journey of the child who survives the Nazis after they have drowned her family. The communist years offer equality but a loss of nomadic freedom. Gypsies become comrades, but only if they agree to live in tower blocks. Otherwise they are judged as "primitive" and despicable.

McCann has created a brilliant heroine able to straddle opposing worlds: Slovakia under Stalin, and the freedom of Roma life. But it is the presence of the half-Irish, half-Slovak character Stephen Swann that provokes the conflict in Zoli. He celebrates her poetry and she allows him to record her. She becomes a famous communist performer, and this public life is anathema to her society. Swann becomes Zoli's secret lover and wants her to be his wife: another taboo; Romanies must marry their own. Zoli dares to live in two cultures, and this brave decision ruins her.

Her punishment is total expulsion from her community. She is found guilty of having betrayed her society and condemned to suffer "pollution for life": "Nobody would ever eat with her now. Nobody would walk with her. When she died, nobody would bury her."

There is no sentimentalising of Gypsy life. Not only is Zoli condemned to suffer total isolation from her group, but from Roma everywhere. It's one of the most poignant areas of McCann's writing, and he acutely captures her stoical response.

This work contains disturbing and wonderful moments. Zoli refuses to let her books be published in editions bound by glue, out of loyalty to an old horse who ended up in the glue factory. Long after the war, she crosses the Slovakian border into Austria and, filthy, resists taking a shower for fear of being gassed.

This is a densely impressionistic narrative and the writing is compulsive. Zoli rightly dominates, and her multi-layered character is gripping; however, Swann's interior life doesn't jump off the page as hers does. This aside, I very much enjoyed the way McCann evokes huge political shifts through one woman's experience. Zoli is an intriguing look at an unknown history and adds great wealth to the emerging literature of Romany culture in the 20th century.

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