Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Colum McCann

Random House, 2008

The story of Gypsy poet and singer Zoli Novotna is told by several narrators from several layers of time. In 2003, the journalist comes to the Roma settlement, where Zoli Novotna once was born. Gypsies share stories of the past of legendary Zoli with him.

In the early 30's, when Nazis became power, the laws began to change, and Gypsies were killed and evicted from the land. All Zoli’s family, except for Zoli and her grandfather Stanislaus, had been shot. Zoli with her grandfather hide in the woods with a horse, while not adjacent to the tribe of Gypsie harpists. Zoli at that time was six years old, and while she and her grandfather was hiding in the woods, Stanislaus’s taught her to read and write on "Capital", which he always carried with him, breaking the gypsy traditions, because girls were not allowed to reading and writing skills.
The girl is getting married early, at age 14, for a gypsy named Peter, who is much older than her. Grandfather soon dies, and the war ends. Success comes to Zoli, but later, after the war. Stephen Swan, who is the narrator in one of the parts of the novel, is English, but with Slovak roots.

Obsessed with the ideals of communism, after the war, he traveled to Czechoslovakia, where Stephen is patronized by local poet Martin Stransky. Swan translates into English, lives just like everyone else, often gets a cold. In 1950, Swan met with Zoli.

Stransky was the first to discover the poetry Zoli, and drew attention to her. He wants to publish her book of poems. Roma have no written language, and Stransky and Swan, as his assistant, transfer Zoli’s songs and poems, existing only in oral form, on paper.

McCann in this novel is like the heroine of the novel Zoli tells his story so fascinating that you even stopped to care what is happening. McCann writes really well, loudly, correctly placing the intonation, he’s especially good in the first half of the novel. Beginning is fascinating, when the story is told from the point of view of a six-year girl, it’s touching and funny. The author's style is truly British, he avoids Gypsy’s words, does not insert italics gypsy sayings, not trying to assimilate his style. No less successful is the second chapter, when the first-person narrator Stephen Swan becomes gradually fascinated by strange beauty of a Gipsy Zoli. Swan seems fascinated by form and not substance. He is mesmerized by otherworldness of the poet herself, her tongue, her voice, the ability to attract attention. But Swan never tells about the content of poems and songs of Zoli (McCann in the text itself rarely gives examples of Zoli’s poetry).

The second half is not that written worse, but more monotonous. Kicked in disgrace, Zoli as Gingerbread, is rolling across Europe, small events heppen with her, but they do not mean much, and similar to each other. The interest is waning, besides McCann inserts into the narrative Zoli’s letter to her daughter, and the question of whether Zoli will survive or not, by itself disappears. «Zoli» is is a one-man show (or rather ome-woman), because there are no other characters. And this author has difficulties. If the reader is interested in Zoli as an individual, it will be interesting to trail the story, if not - you hardly even will read to the end. You can not be interested because McCann inspires us to believe in the tragic nature of the heroine, the complexity of her fate, her troubles, but the novel lacks something that would show us an aura of mystery around Zoli. We spent too much time with the character, so we learn almost all about Zoli, a little too much. Besides if you’ll look at the gypsy sober, you can see not a gifted woman, which no one understands, but selfish thief, cheating woman, traitress.

«Zoli» is an uneven novel, above average, but read it only if you’re in the mood.

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