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Zoli by Colum McCann

Zoli (2007)

by Colum McCann

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
A beautiful and harrowing novel by one of my favorite contemporary American authors. It traces the life of a female gypsy poet from the horrors of World War II, to the stultifying world of Communist Eastern Europe, to a dramatic escape to the West. We see so much of European history through the lens of this incredibly articulate, sensitive soul, all told with McCann's densely descriptive narrative intensity. For a taste of the prose, here's the opening sentence: "He drives along the small streambed, 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 a dry tongue of rust, the carcass of a fridge in the brambles." It's been a while since I've read the book, but I still see that "tongue of rust" in my imagination, along with so much else in this brilliant book. ( )
  MichaelBarsa | Dec 17, 2017 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
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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)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, an examination of intimacy and betrayal based loosely on the true story of the Romani poet Papsuza, Zoli finds the art inherent in social and political history, while vividly depicting how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs.… (more)

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