Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: Zoli - Colum McCann

One of my goals this upcoming year is to read additional books written by authors I read last year. Zoli by Colum McCann is the first book towards this goal.  Last November I read Let the Great World Spin and was captivated by McCann's writing style.

A major new novel about a Gypsy woman exiled for betraying her people: the novel begins in Czechoslovakia in the early 1930s when Zoli, a young Roma girl, is six years old. The fascist Hlinka guards had driven most of her people out onto the frozen lake and forced them to stay there until the spring, when the ice cracked and everyone drowned - Zoli's parents, brothers and sisters. Now she and her grandfather head off in search of a 'company'. Zoli teaches herself to read and write and becomes a singer, a privileged position in a Gypsy company as they are viewed as the guardians of Gypsy tradition. But Zoli is different because she secretly writes down some of her songs. With the rise of the Nazis, the suppression of the gypsies intensifies. The war ends when Zoli is 16 and with the spread of socialism, the Roma are suddenly regarded as 'comrades' again. Zoli meets Stephen Swann, a man she will have a passionate affair with, but who will also betray her. He persuades Zoli to publish some of her work. But when the government try to use Zoli to help them in their plan to 'settle' gypsies, her community turns against her. They condemn her to 'Pollution for Life', which means she is exiled forever. She begins a journey that will eventually lead her to Italy and a new life. Zoli is based very loosely on the true story of the Gypsy poet, Papusza, who was sentenced to a Life of Pollution by her fellow Roma when a Polish intellectual published her poems. But McCann has turned this into so much more - it's a brilliantly written work that brings the culture and the time to life, an incredibly rich story about betrayal and redemption, and storytelling in all its guises. - Random House
I heard Colum McCann speak last month and I was fascinated with how he "immerses" himself within a book while writing it.  He was speaking (and reading) on Let the Great World Spin, but at times he would refer to his other books as well. While I have read books set around both World Wars, I have never read a book set in Czechoslovakia or about gypsies.  Colum writes the book from Zoli's perspective as told to her adult daughter.  He also writes a few sections from Stephen's point of view and an unnamed journalist trying to write a modern day story about Zoli's legend.

Colum's prose does not let me down.  His descriptive but yet "light" tone that I was awed by in Let the Great World Spin appears in Zoli as well. I was impressed that Colum wrote a poem (supposedly written by Zoli) and included that at the back of the book.  I know from his talk that poetry and writing poems is a big part of his life.  Zoli's perseverance was very prevalent in this story.  While she did experience some comfort while at communist parties, she was raised to make do with little.  When she was exiled from her people that knowledge of how to live with whatever clothes you have on your back and whatever food you can find became a great asset.

I appreciate Colum making Zoli a strong female character but with a few weaknesses as well.  I also appreciated learning about life in Czechoslovakia during the World Wars and afterward.  I felt like that time period was kinda flipped on its head a bit and another vantage point was shown. I'm looking forward to reading another book by Colum in the upcoming months.

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