And because it is beautiful and worth having, you happily repeat this, unaware of the hours you’re putting into the endeavor. Much like this game, “Zoli” follows the life of a female poet raised in the traveling Roma (aka “Gypsy”) culture. With his previous three novels (two of which were international bestsellers), the Dublin-born McCann has dealt with issues of transnational identity, immigration, and history (including Irish history). “Zoli” explores these same preoccupations, except now McCann turns his eye to Central and Eastern Europe. Beginning with her childhood in 1930s Czechoslovakia, the narrative chronicles the experiences of Zoli Novotna, based loosely on the life of the poet Papusza, through World War II and the establishment of the Communist Bloc to the present day. Orphaned at age of six, when Hlinka guards murder her family, Zoli is taken in by her grandfather, who, against tradition, teaches her to read and write. Zoli develops into a gifted singer and songwriter of the Romani tradition, even as she and her grandfather constantly flee violence from the pro-Nazi government. And when the Communist government takes over with promises of diversity and tolerance, 16-year-old Zoli is “discovered” by an established poet (Stransky) and an English expatriate (Swann) — editors of a literary magazine who publish her as a poet.
Soon, she is swept up in the praise of the outside world that once shunned her and her people, enjoying fame both inside and outside her community as the voice of the Roma. The publisher claims that Zoli and Swann fall in love as they work together to record and publish her poems, but this reader has yet to be convinced that it is anything more than romanticized fascination on Swann’s part and (perhaps) boredom on Zoli’s. Either way, they carry on an affair, even though tradition forbids Zoli to mingle with (or even drink from the same glass as) an outsider. But eventually, the Communist government begins to use her poems to promote a program that will try to assimilate the Roma into mainstream society. As a result, Zoli is banished by her own people. Feeling betrayed by Swann for his hand in exploiting her poems, Zoli, on foot and with nothing but a pocketknife, flees for the West.
Although the narrative is disjointed — spanning the course of 70 years (not chronologically), shifting from first to third person, and from the perspectives of Swann, Zoli, and a present-day journalist named Smolenak — McCann pulls his readers along with consistently fine writing. Meticulous in both his research and his details, he creates a vivid landscape of Roma culture and historical contexts. At times, especially in the beginning, the research seems to usurp the Roma characters. For example, Zoli’s grandfather is killed off, it seems, for the sole narrative purpose of relaying Roma funereal customs. He raised Zoli, is her only family, taught her to read and write and how to survive their hostile environment, but his death elicits not much more from her than a series of Roma rituals. Ritual, of course, is a way of containing and expressing grief, but at times the reader is left feeling as if McCann is shying away from his first-person female perspective. Although the ritual aspect is important, these narrative devices are sometimes used as substitutes for Zoli’s emotional engagement with the complex world she inhabits.
But, in the end, this seems to be the point. The Roma are often stereotyped as performers who display themselves to the general public-performing dances, songs, or telling fortunes for pay. McCann dispels this myth with his heroine. Just as Swann, Smolenak, and the Communist government try to possess Zoli, so McCann keeps her at the tips of our fingers. There are some stunning scenes where Zoli consciously breaks tradition, revealing the intensity of her struggle. But for the most part, through her harrowing and dangerous life’s journey, Zoli is often distilled into the tinkle of coins in her hair, the weight of her bright skirt sewn with stones, the gestures of ritual, and, in her worst moments, the physical pain she endures as she flees her country through terrain studded with barbed wire.
Constantly in the fight or flight mode, Zoli makes us long for a moment of stillness through which her voice can emerge. But just as her people refuse to be settled, constantly moving through unstable times to avoid detection, so Zoli skirts comprehension through some 300 pages (she falls in love with and marries a man who, to her delight, asks her no questions). And when she does finally find the voice to speak, the curtain falls, marking the end of the story, which, fittingly, forces us to respect the privacy of this elusive poet. “Zoli” reveals just enough to keep us fascinated. But McCann does not leave us empty-handed. In refusing to fulfill our simple voyeuristic desires, he gives us something much greater: he reveals the complexities of a marginalized culture that, even today, is still defined by the stereotypes exploited by the 20th century’s most notorious fascists.
“Zoli” is published by Random House; 331 pp.; $24.95.