The tone of the novel is one of dignified sadness; there is a sense of mourning throughout, not only for the poet but for the fate of the Roma. Beautifully conceived, wonderfully told, the story is proof of an indomitable spirit. The elusive character of Zoli, the brilliant artist, is unforgettable.
The Washington Post
In the story of Zoli, who is loosely based on the Romany poet Papusza, McCann calls into question easy notions about the inherent value of the written word and the places we call home. Zoli, a Communist, is first betrayed by the Party—which, after initially exalting the Gypsies, burned their wagons and forced them into housing projects—and then cast out by her own people for allowing the gadze to publish her work. In a frenzy of remorse, she attempts to destroy her poems and outrun her past. McCann courageously takes on the racism and romance surrounding Romany culture, and yet he never quite manages to penetrate it. Instead, it is his portrayal of twentieth-century deracination that stays with us. As Zoli sets off across Europe on foot, stripped of not only the potency of her Romany heritage but the promise of a utopian future, each new encounter is charged with both futility and wonder.
In his bittersweet fourth novel, McCann chronicles the imperiled world of the Slovakian Roma (Gypsies, to their enemies) from World War II through the establishment of the Communist bloc. After the pro-Nazi Hlinkas drown the rest of her family, six-year-old Zoli Novotna escapes with her grandfather to join another camp of Roma, where she discovers a gift for singing. At her grandfather's urging, she also breaks a Romani taboo and learns to read and write. She later becomes involved with poet Martin Stransk", and her poems, which draw on her Roma heritage, are promoted by Martin as the harbinger of a "literate proletariat" and a new Gypsy literature. Her growing fame, however, betrays her when the Communist government appropriates her work for its project to assimilate the Roma. Condemned by her own people and, as a Roma, alienated from the Slovaks, Zoli finds her way to a new home. The narrative switches between third- and first-person, though it is strongest when narrated by Zoli. McCann does a marvelous job of portraying a marginalized culture, and his world of caravans, music and family is rich with sensual detail. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Effectively re-creating the atmosphere of Eastern Europe and Gypsy culture from before World War II to the 1950s and later, McCann (This Side of Brightness) retraces the life of a gifted Gypsy poet and singer named Zoli Novotna, based on the real-life Papusza. When security police murder her family, Zoli and her grandfather escape to join another group of Gypsies. Her artistic gifts become obvious as she grows older, and after she survives the Nazi regime, her local renown reaches the ears of a publisher and critic who works with her to formalize her creative output. She also gets mixed up with Czechoslovakia's fledgling Communist government, believing that the Gypsies can secure a better life by cooperating with the authorities, but this leads to brutality and oppression. Banished by the Gypsies and hunted by the Communists, Zoli begins a long and harrowing journey to the West. McCann has an affinity for outcasts and the homeless, and the depiction of Zoli's journey through forests and farmlands toward the Austrian border is forceful. Well written, though at times overly detailed, this haunting novel is recommended for larger fiction collections.-Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
McCann traces the trajectory of a Gypsy poet's exile. Drawing on extensive research and visits to Romani settlements in Slovakia, McCann (Dancer, 2003, etc.) re-imagines the iconic Gypsy poet Papusza in the fictional guise of Zoli, whom we first meet at age six, fleeing with her grandfather, having narrowly escaped a Fascist pogrom in which their family and kumpanija (Gypsy band) died. Although reading and writing is forbidden for a Romani girl, Zoli learns in secret. Soon she is singing songs to her adopted kumpanija. The band survives WWII and is welcomed by the Slovakian Communist regime. At first, it appears that anti-Romani discrimination will end. Zoli is discovered by a poet, Stransky, and his English apprentice and translator, Swann, who edit a literary magazine and labor in a Bratislava printing plant. When they transcribe Zoli's songs into poems and publish a chapbook, Zoli becomes a Socialist poster-poet, a sensation feted on national tours. Tightly bound by her Romani roots, Zoli often retreats to her kumpanija's encampment. When Swann follows her, they begin a clandestine affair, complicated by the Romani refusal to accept outsiders, or gadže). The regime changes and Stransky is tortured and shot. The government embarks on a campaign, called the Halt, of forced relocation of Gypsies to high-rise apartments. (To ensure cooperation, all their wagon wheels are burned.) Zoli's popularity among gadže has incited distrust among her people. They blame her for the Halt, and administer the ultimate Gypsy punishment: She is declared unclean. The girl is subsequently banished and thereafter shunned by her people. She sneaks into Swann's apartment and, in a gesture of despair andcynicism, steals his meager possessions. McCann artfully weaves Romani traditions, superstitions and expressions into a vibrant tableau, vividly rendering Zoli's conflicting urges to flee and stay. After a tortuous journey, alone, on foot, across three countries, she is smuggled across the Alps into Italy, where she finally reconciles with her harshest persecutor, herself. Mesmerizing.
Very powerful . . . rich in vivid detail . . . the prose is just plain gorgeous. . . . McCann allows us to enter a world few of us know anything about.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] beautifully written [novel] loosely based on the life of the Polish Gypsy poet ‘Papusza,’ who lived throughout most of the twentieth century. . . . Beautifully conceived, wonderfully told, the story is proof of an indomitable spirit. The elusive character of Zoli, the brilliang artist, is unforgettable.”—The Washington Post Book World
“McCann is a writer of large and driving vision. . . . [Zoli] contains passages of stunning lyricism and sharp ironic force.”—The New York Times
“Rich and sensuous . . . McCann’s research and lustrous prose bring Zoli vibrantly alive.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Astonishing . . . carefully crafted and subtle portrait of one woman’s rich and troubled relationship with her people, and with her own Gypsy heart.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Soaring and stumbling over decades of midcentury Eastern Europe, Zoli is a riveting novel.”—Gail Caldwell, Boston Sunday Globe
“McCann affirms with Zoli, his fourth novel, that he is a writer with a method and a mission . . . The Roma hardships under the Nazis, their hopes and cruel disillusion under Communism, are grittily conveyed in scenes well researched and often gripping.”—Los Angeles Times