Zoli by Colum McCann<

A gypsy with no home but music
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The Independent Culture

Colum McCann is fascinated with the "other". His previous novels, including Dancer and This Side of Brightness, combined fiction and history with empathetic deftness to study such varied lives as Rudolph Nureyev and the subway diggers of Manhattan. Zoli continues his epic exploration of identity to follow the rise and decline of a Romani singer and poet, loosely based on a real-life gypsy woman, Papsuza. Papsuza was sentenced to a "Life of Pollution" by Romani society when the Polish government began publishing her poems. McCann switches the action to Czechoslovakia, but the tale is essentially the same.

McCann plays with Zoli's torn ego by shifting perspectives. Like Dancer, Zoli begins with its lead as a child entering a new world of Soviet rule. As a girl, Zoli describes her love for the Romani life and idolatry of her Marxist grandfather, her only remaining family member after a Hlinka massacre. He teaches her to read and write, contrary to tradition, and this curious, intelligent girl begins to write her own odes to the Romani life. These early sections are full of stirring, poetic portraits of Romani society and are almost idyllic, even in the face of barbarism. Everything, from the cracking paint on their wooden caravans to the action of burying harps to protect them from destruction, is evocatively, sumptuously described.

After the war, the Communists latch on to the Romani as the face of proletariat revolution. Zoli begins a relationship with an Englishman, Stephen Swann, who publishes her work. To the idealist Swann, who narrates this period, Zoli is the embodiment of the perfect primitive. But when she rebels against his bourgeois use of her talents, he ceases to understand her and she drifts away from us.

The Soviets turn Zoli into a poster girl for the forced resettlement of the gypsies and her people finally reject her. By the time we return to Zoli's narration, her identity is lost and she is a distant figure, though her fear is tangible as she undertakes a torrid flight from Bratislava. By the end of the book she is an aged anachronism, a supposed innovator who, as she tells her daughter, is still traditional and "of those times".

McCann's approach is deliberately didactic. The worst burden, says Zoli, is when "they force us to be what they expect us to be". Given McCann's expressive writing and incisive examination of identity through perspective, he doesn't need to be this explicit. There are also a few frustrations that keep us from getting close to Zoli. Pivotal events in her earlier life, such as the death of her grandfather or her arranged marriage are skipped over, while her solo escape from Czechoslovakia takes up almost half the book.

Given the ambition of the novel, however, these are small complaints. McCann intelligently poses complicated questions about immigration and identity that are deeply relevant today. His prose is sharp and scintillatingly sensual, and the final moment in which Zoli finally rediscovers herself through music is incontrovertibly moving.

If this beautiful, thoughtful novel falls just short, it's only because it shoots for the stars and hits the horizon. No doubt Papsuza would have approved.