Zoli: A Novel by Colum McCann (New York: Random House, 2006. 368 pp)

Colum McCann was born in Ireland in 1965. He is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. He has been the recipient of many international honors, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children. He teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College.

Exploring the Unknown

One of the best aspects of reading emerges in the many unknown ideas a bibliophile encounters. You can explore the world from your couch. You can become immersed in cultures vastly different from your own. But this couch-surfing comes at a cost, especially for those wearing their critical thinking caps. How can you ever truly know the veracity of what you read? Even in non-fiction, the space between truth and fabrication is exceedingly opaque.

In fact, I’ll shamelessly plug a previous review of The Lifespan of a Fact to prove this point.

When you are reading, especially a particular book on a singular topic, you must always balance the intrigue of a new idea against the possibility of such an idea not representing the sparkling truth.

For the reason, reviewing Colum McCann’s Zoli is impossible.

Snapshots of Life

The novel follows its titular character, the Romani poet Zoli, through her life. We get snapshots of her existence, one during the War and at the height of discrimination against Gypsies. Zoli’s parents, in fact, were murdered, in cold blood.

“We went down the road, Grandfather and I. My days were spent still staring backwards, waiting for my dead family to catch up, though of course I knew then that they never would” (22).

We see post-War Czechoslovakia, immersed in the communist ideal with Zoli representing the future of the Romani people given her intellect, her singing voice, and her discovery from socialist academics.

“She was a new sort of Czechoslovakian woman, taken out of the margins to illustrate our steps forward under socialism” (97).

We encounter her in the new Millennium, forced to recognize new facets of discrimination as a post-modern Europe continues to try its best to accept a culture it does not understand. In these times, Zoli finds it difficult to understand and communicate her identity when her culture no longer becomes a talking point.

“I asked Enrico why he had not asked my anything about being a Gypsy and he asked me why I had never asked him anything about not being one.
It was perhaps the most beautiful answer I have ever heard in my life” (268).

An Introduction to a Culture?

And yet, I possess little understanding of the Romani plight to the point that I am unaware of the best way to approach a review of McCann’s Zoli.

My cursory understanding of the Central European people labeled “Gypsies” mostly comes from the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as a handful of viewings of the TLC “Gypsy Wedding” series.

I have a small recognition around the racism and discrimination of the Romani people, but most of it surrounds the thought that “modern” culture wants the Romani people to “settle down” while Romani culture has a foundation in nomadic movement.

McCann’s novel opens up a view into this culture and I find it a fascinating read, but without a rigorous study of its historical setting, it’s hard to say much more. If it’s of any value, Ian Hancock, the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas finds Zoli a moving narrative and an “introduction to the bleak reality of Romani life.” So there’s that.

But I fear making any application to the wide view of what Romani culture might be. It’s never good to know just enough to be dangerous, as the saying goes.

If you enjoy solid, literary writing that brings culture to life, McCann’s Zoli is a good read. But if you’re looking for an introduction into the work of Colum McCann, I’d recommend Let the Great World Spin.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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