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Zoli by Colum McCann

Zoli (2007)

by Colum McCann

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Gypsy life in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s through the 1950s. An agonizing escape to the West. Told from several points of view. I just read McCann's Dancer, which I liked very much. I also liked his TransAtlantic and Thirteen Ways of Looking so I decided to read something else by this author. I was not disappointed. The title character in this novel is "loosely inspired by Papusza" a polish poet (1910-1987 ( )
  seeword | Aug 8, 2016 |
I was surprised at how easy to read this book was. It dealt with an interesting topic, at an interesting time, but the epic nature of the novel and the potential to be dry was a red flag for me.

Not to worry. The writing was excellent, with full-bodied characters. I have heard of Gypsies all my life, but have never been introduced to their lifestyle, culture, traditions and past like McCann has done in this book. Zoli was a complex character, torn between two very different worlds. I felt her pain and struggle as she moved through the years. The book divisions were welcome at and appropriate times. Emotions were almost at a crescendo as one section stopped and another one started. While the action and chronology was fluid, each section allowed for a breath and a new start as I turned the page.

I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading more works by Colum McCann. ( )
  CarmenMilligan | Jan 18, 2016 |

This novel is loosely based on the life of the Gypsy poet Papusza. Traveling across Europe – from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, Austria, Italy and France – the book focuses on Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the Romani tradition. As fascism spreads over 1930s Eastern Europe, the orphaned Zoli and her grandfather flee their home and join a clan of traveling Romani harpists. Despite the potential censure of the traditional clan members, Zoli’s grandfather teachers her to read. Her curiosity and zeal for learning are sharpened by her reading, and she becomes a symbol of a supposedly new culture of tolerance in the Soviet Union. She adapts the ancient songs to the new times, and has her fame grows the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own repressive purposes. Eventually she is cast out from her family and tribe, and finds that the only way to survive is to abandon her past and make the trek to the West.

I was intrigued by the back story of this novel and the critical acclaim (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle among others) landed it on my tbr. There is some beautifully evocative writing herein. For example: By early evening it seems to her that the darkness has begun to lift itself out of the earth, overtaking the grays and yellows of the marsh floor. It rises to the top of the trees and shoulders against the last patches of light. She considers a moment that it is, in fact, more beautiful than she has ever created in words, that the darkness actually restores the light. The trees more dark than the dark itself. But they are sandwiched between long passages where I was completely bored. I never felt any connection to Zoli or the other characters in the book. The ending was rather abrupt and dissatisfying, leaving me with more questions than answers.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
Couldn't put this one down. Fascinating story of the Roma [gypsies] encapsulated through the story of a Roma woman, Zoli, with a gift for song and poetry. The story is very loosely based on that of Papusza, a famous Roma singer and poet.

The story begins in 1930s Czechoslovakia where Zoli's family are drowned by the fascists' driving them onto ice, which then breaks beneath their weight.
Zoli and her grandfather escape and find refuge with another kumpanija--musicians all.
The horrible WWII years pass, then under the repressive Czech government, Zoli decides to flee to the West--Paris, she has in her mind. She is ostracized by her tribe. Most of the novel tells of her journey and contending with gadzhe [non-Gypsy] prejudice.

The author's writing style was crisp, incisive, with deep sympathy for the Roma and their plight. The novel was an easy way to learn something of Roma culture.

From a poem of Zoli's:

"They drove our wagons onto the ice
And ringed the white lake with fires,
So when the ice began to crack
The cheers went up from the Hlinkas,
We forced our horses forward
But they skidded, bloody, to the shore.

My land, we are your children,
Shore up the ice and make it freeze!
The snow fell large and white
And buried our wheels center deep" ( )
1 vote janerawoof | Jan 4, 2015 |
I am not a professional reviewer, I am just a woman who loves to read and loves to learn and be inspired by the books I read. I picked this book up on Book Bub and I am so glad I did. The life of the main character Zoli and the Roma people spoke volumes to me and moved my soul. This story will stay with me for a long time.
Because I am not proficient with words I am going to copy a reviewer's review of this book that just mirrored my feelings exactly and she says it so much better than I could ever do so please read this wonderful review of this moving story.


While I read this book I grappled with my lack of understanding. This is a book of historical fiction; I could not make up my mind if I wanted to learn the details about the life of Romani poet Papsuza (1910-1987), on which this book is loosely based, or whether I should just read the book for the delight of falling into the story. Only when I stopped trying to learn the factual details and let myself just plain enjoy the story did I enjoy the book. In the process I did learn very much about the Romani culture. I learned a bit about Papsuza too, but there are major differences between the main character in the novel, Zoli, and the real person Papsuza.

If I have any advice to give, it is to not demand complete understanding as you read this book. By the end you will understand. I was gripping after threads to master the subject. I was scared I would miss something and fail to understand. My advice: sit back, read the book, enjoy the sentences and do not worry if you do not understand everything. You will understand in the end. Many sentences can be interpreted in different ways. If you are looking for the truth, for the facts, you will surely be frustrated. I am giving this book four stars, because I love the writing. I love the message imparted by the book, and I did learned about Romani people, their hardships and lifestyle, with a focus on those living in Eastern Europe from the 30s through to the 21st Century.

This paragraph concerns the differences between Zoli’s life, the main character of this book and Papsuza. Papsuza was of Polish origin. Zoli was Slovakian. Romani women were not taught to read or write, but both Papsuza and Zoli could. However Zoli learned from her grandfather while Papsuza stole thing to trade them for lessons. The very biggest difference is that in real life Papsuza was interned in a mental institution and spent the end of her life, the last 34 years, all alone. McCann has changed that ending (view spoiler).

I needed McCann’s ending. I am glad he changed it. This is not a book about one woman. It is about Eastern European Romani people and it is a book that poses philosophical questions. In the lines of the book you will find the statement: “Nothing is ever fully understood.” Zoli says this, and it is clearly evident in the whole way the book is written. Life is a constant struggle to understand, and so is the book. If you enjoy pondering philosophical issues and don’t mind the brain exercise necessary to figure out what is going on, then the book is for you. This is a central theme. Listen to what is said about Henri: ”He knew in advance all that is worth knowing.” This is not to be taken as a compliment. But then humor is thrown in: “I have gone through so many of them (boyfriends), maybe I should get an accountant.” Another theme that is returned to again and again is inferred in this sentence: “The river is not where it starts or it ends.” Sentences such as this are thrown at you. I say that river is life. You may interpret this differently.

In any case the writing is pure poetry – albeit free verse and unrhymed. Zoli speaks of gullible non-Romani: “You can make them swallow anything with enough sugar and tears. They will lick the tears and sugar and make of them a paste called sympathy.” Now cannot the Romani criticize us for once?! Or this: “Once I was guilty of thinking only good things happen. Then I was guilty of thinking they would never happen again. Now I wait and make no judgment. You ask me what I love....” Then the elderly Zoli names things so beautiful as fruit trees and walks, blue wool mittens, coffee, wind…..or a daughter’s first step.

Now I must mention what has bothered me. When I was stuck in the mode of trying to learn about the life of Papsuza, I was extremely annoyed about the confusion and lack of clear facts concerning the transition from the Fascist to Communist powers in Slovakia. I thought the sentences were not clear. I wanted more dates and clear facts. I thought I would not understand history! But the message of how the Romani people suffered and how their lives were lived does become clear without excessive dates and precise historical facts. You do get some. And in fact you do get the basics events of Papsuza’s life too! If you want more, look at this link: http://romani.uni-graz.at/rombase/cgi.... Look at her photo. She had an eye that “strayed”.

Another complaint I had was how the narration switched from third person to first and back and forth. This is confusing. Zoli is spoken of in third person and also in the first person. I very much preferred when she spoke in the first person. I disliked when I read that she did that and she did this, when I wanted to get inside her head. Later, when she does speak in first person, that the narrator of the audiobook (Nigel Carrington) was a man, was disturbing. This really threw me off ....until I got used to it. I panicked and thought: “Who is speaking?! This is some man! Oh gosh, I am totally lost.” The dates and places jump. There is a beginning section by a journalist that is further confusing. I warn you, this is a book that is scarily confusing until you just plain relax and listen/read. You do end up understanding. Don’t panic, as I did!

Originally I thought there was a conflict between the theme of the book and the writing style. But then when I got over my need to have full control and understanding of every sentence, when I let myself enjoy the words and philosophical questions, when I stopped demanding that I must learn some historical facts, that is when I realized I was totally enjoying myself. And I did learn a lot about Romani culture and suffering. About Papsuza too. I do highly recommend this book. ( )
  theeccentriclady | May 16, 2014 |
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If you keep quiet, you die. If you speak, you die. So speak and die. Tahar Djaout.
But in our century, when only eveil and indifference are limitless, we cannot afford unnecessary questions; rather, we need to defend ourselves with whatever there is to hand of certainty. I know that you remember... John Berger "And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos"
To get back before dark is the art of going. Wendell Berry "The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry 1957-1982"
For Allison, Isabella, John Michael, and Christian Much of this novel was written and researched while I was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. It is dedicated to all of those at the library and to libraians everywhere: thank you.
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He drives alongside the small steambed, and the terrible shitscape looms up by increments - upturned buckets by the bend in the river, a broken baby carriage in the weeds, a petrol drum leaking out tounge of rust, the carcass of a fridge in the brambles.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812973984, Paperback)

A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature.

Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann.

But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Colum McCann, acclaimed author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness, has created a sensuous novel about exile, belonging and survival, based loosely on the true story of the Romani poet Papsuza. It spans the twentieth century and travels the breadth of Europe. In the tradition of Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Ondaatje, McCann finds the art inherent in social and political history, while vividly depicting how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:17 -0400)

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Join the imperiled world of the Slovakian Romanies from World War II through the establishment of the Communist bloc.

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