In Colum McCann's novel about a Romani singer-poet, the melodies of a vanished world linger
By Colum McCann
Random House, 333 pp., $24.95
The Irish writer Colum McCann is blessed with the unlikely mix of an adventurer's spirit and an introvert's compassionate eye. His fiction reflects this sweet incongruity, roaming among life's dispossessed with heartfelt ease . In "This Side of Brightness," he gave us a story of homeless people living in the subways of New York that was a cartographer's revelation. A Dublin native transplanted to New York, he has wandered the rocky political coasts of Ireland and the Russian front in World War II, finding within the facts of history a truth ennobled by language and human tragedy. "Zoli" brings to bear all these signature elements, borrowing from the true story of the Romani poet Papusza to render the intimate epic of a Gypsy woman's flight and fall.
Fairly or not, I'm often wary of a novel that purports to draw from historical parallels; my caution here was unwarranted. "Zoli" is a commanding novel with an inner reality so authentic it could only have come from the matrix of a novelist's imagination. But its bounty of emotional and character detail is tethered by McCann's research : a four-year immersion in Romani culture, in the archives and in Slovakia. The woman who arises from these ashes of print and memory is a splendid protagonist and sometimes narrator -- a girl christened Marienka, then called Zoli, a boy's name, by her grandfather, who gave her the heretical gift of teaching her to read.
The novel opens in 1930s Czechoslovakia with grief and horror: Zoli and her grandfather Stanislaus return to their family's encampment to see their caravans driven out onto the ice by fascist troops who have set fires around the edges of the frozen lake. The girl and the man watch everything they love -- people, horses, wagons, their entire world -- disappear into black waters. Zoli is 6 and Stanislaus, 39; they flee to another tribe of Romanis, who make music in the cloistered forest and then bury their harps to hide them from the fascists. Zoli learns to read, then write; she hides pages in her skirts and finds that the most precious things in life must be kept secret. These are a few of the things she has learned: "Remember weather by the voice of the wheel. Do not become the fool they need you to become. Change your name. Lose your shoes. Practice doubt. . . . Adore darkness. . . . Beware the Hlinkas, it is always at night that the massacres occur."
Soaring and stumbling over decades of mid-century Eastern Europe, "Zoli" is a riveting novel, those buried harps the metaphor for the entire story. Headstrong and weirdly beautiful, with a lazy eye that will identify her even when she least desires it, Zoli is married off at 14 to a violinist, a kind older man who allows her her books and her scribbled poetry. Zoli writes down the songs she has grown up hearing; because the Romanis are a mostly oral culture, her gift is a weapon more powerful than she could ever guess or want. After the war, in the new Soviet Socialist regime's embrace of its downtrodden, Zoli is discovered by political opportunists and well-intentioned translators. "She's a singer," says Stephen Swann, one of the shifting narrators of the novel and a man who has fallen in love with Zoli. "She's a poet," replies the publisher who will catapult her into fame and print. "She's a voice from the dust."
But rags to riches would make a pale story compared with what's in store for Zoli and her people, who are soon enough victims of the very regime they thought would free them from the fascists. An unwilling poster child for the revolution, Zoli sees her scribbled songs turned into part of the propaganda machine for assimilation -- an evil process where the Romani people are "rescued" from a nomadic life by being deloused and inoculated, their wheels burned and their families broken apart. Zoli will be the martyred messenger: Seeing her as a Soviet dupe, her people banish her for life. The declaration means she is shunned wherever she goes; she cannot be spoken to or of, will not even be buried when she dies.
The last half of "Zoli" follows this arc downward, eventually finding a resolution as merciful as it is far-flung. And because the novel traces Zoli's journey -- through history, across borders, from precocious girl to legendary and then infamous woman -- it also gives us a tapestry of an entire culture, one shrouded and then marginalized into near extinction. But it is the thick interiors of Zoli's life that provide such resonant heft and beauty to the novel: her walk across Eastern Europe, scorned and starving, her psychological shrinking into an animal bent on survival. She sleeps in an abandoned shrine, hides her bread from rats, steals a knife from one man , and defends her life against another. By the time she reaches the border into Austria, she knows how to move among shadows and sunlight to shield herself from the watchtowers -- to rest silently for hours, then go forth under cover of night. She sees the night building in the sky at dusk and thinks that the rising colors of silver and black are "more beautiful than she has ever created in words, that the darkness actually restores the light."
And that, too, is an apt metaphor, one generous enough to contain sorrow giving way to joy, and it captures McCann's writing as a whole. "Zoli" is a story of exile, told by an Irish expatriate who is drawn to the cracks in the world: the ice breaking, the hidden tunnels, the songs flung out against the dark.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.