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Colum McCann was born in Dublin in 1965. He discovered the power of writing when, as a journalism student he carried out an investigation into the situation of battered women in the city. He won Young Journalist of the Year for his work, and also saw the issue raised in the Irish Parliament. Following his graduation, he travelled to New York, and so began a period in his life where he would be exposed to a huge cross-section of life. His initial six-month trip saw him working his way from tea boy in Universal Press Syndicate to reporter. After a spell back in Ireland, he returned to the States, undertaking a massive roadtrip by bike that took him through 40 states and earned him a wealth of stories to draw from. He eventually spent time working with troubled kids on wilderness experiences, writing his first two (unpublished) books in the process. Now married with three children McCann has settled in New York, but travels to research his books thoroughly. In the case of this, his sixth published book, he travelled to Slovakia to spend time with the Romani people.
Zoli tells the story of a Slovakian Romani (Gypsy) woman, Marienka Novotna, from her childhood into old age, who was, exceptionally for a woman of her culture, able to read and write, and became fêted for her singing and her poetry. The book's title is taken from her nickname. The story was partly inspired and informed by the true story of Papusza (Bronislawa Wajs), the Polish Romani poet.
The book starts with a modern-day journalist's search for information about Zoli from the Romani community. He draws a blank. The story of her life that follows explains why. Beginning with the horrific murder of most of her family while she was away with her grandfather, there follows an account set in a timeframe that covers 1930 to the present. We trace the movement of her life from childhood and learning, to her discovery by the literati and rise to fame, and the subsequent repercussions as her work was appropriated by the socialists.
One thing that particularly struck me (as an artist) was the conflict of the value placed by the intellectuals on what we see as 'Culture', i.e. the literary and decorative arts, and the cultural values and traditions of a group of people, for whom 'culture' means the collected history of their ancestors and a means of communicating it to future generations. The intellectuals are plainly exploiting her for their own ends, in the name of fighting for the Romani cause. It's a salutary lesson for anyone who gets swept along by a culture and a cause other than their own, in that the damage that can be done without thinking can be immense.
We are exposed to the horrific treatment received by the Romani during the Second World War and in later socialist years. We see too how traditions could also bring misery. But interestingly the only 'side' taken by the author is that of Zoli, and in that, the right of the individual to self-expression. Although it could be a very negative and depressing read, bearing in mind the persecution that is portrayed, there is actually an over-riding theme of hope in this book, carried by Zoli's determination to keep going against the odds.
We have here a valuable insight into Roma life, tradition and attitudes. I found particularly interesting the stark differentiation between how things were in the '30s to how they are portrayed in the present day. The book's chapters are titled in dates and locations, starting in Slovakia in 2003, then moving back to Czechoslovakia 1930s - 1949, England - Czechoslovakia 1930s - 1959, Czechoslovakia - Hungary - Austria 1959-1960, Slovakia 2003, Compeggio, Northern Italy 2001, and following a poem, the final section, Paris 2003.
In my opinion, though, this apparent jumping about doesn't cause any disruption to the flow of the narrative, I've found it quite fascinating as it adds to the depth of the story, and kept me wanting to know more of the details of what had happened to her. It was a compelling story that I found hard to put down. All that I'll say about the ending is that it was a surprise (rather than a shock), and it was, I felt, very fitting.