Based loosely on the life of Polish Romany poet Bronislawa Wajs (or Papusza, her Roma name), Colum McCann’s sixth and latest book, Zoli, is a poetic tale of belonging, borders, and the odd joy of being different. Easily roaming between narrators and nations, the delightful book has at its core an artist who refuses to conform and is never comfortable being anything but herself. Born Marienka but called Zoli, McCann’s main character encapsulates the complex and emotional journey the Roma people endured for most of the 20th century.
In the 1930s, in a nation that no longer exists, six-year-old Zoli and her Marx-reading grandfather escape the pro-Nazi Slovak forces that kill the rest of the family by forcing them onto a frozen lake at gunpoint. Fate is cruel to Zoli, but her grandfather ensures that she will buck Roma tradition, take up the pencil, and learn to read and write. With her kumpanija (“band of families”) Zoli escapes the maniacal fascists — who would rather cart her people off to concentration camps — to experience an all-too-brief golden age when the Communists arrive and embrace the Roma as examples of liberated proletarians.
During this brief cultural entente between Roma and the gadzi (“foreigners”), Zoli’s star rises as a Romany poet who pens the age-old oral tradition of her people to the delight of the Communist intelligentsia. But this blissful moment ends when the Soviet leaders reveal their intentions to forcibly settle the freedom-loving Roma. The Roma rekindle their suspicious hate of the gadzi and blame Zoli for making their world accessible to outsiders; her kumpanija convict her of being a traitor and banish her — the penalty being that all Roma treat her as an outsider. Full of fear and self-loathing, Zoli destroys her work and heads to Paris.
The novel does without the usual kitsch that is connected with the Roma (still mistakenly known as Gypsies), choosing instead to follow the ascent of an artist alienated from the world. McCann is a powerful wordsmith — by Zoli’s end, his heroine is somewhat redeemed as a symbol of authenticity and artistic integrity. Zoli’s journey in words illuminates the vivid and visceral work of McCann’s Roma poet.