[Review] Zoli by Colum McCann

Title: Zoli: A Novel
Author: Colum McCann
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Subject: Romanies, Europe - Social Conditions - 20th Century,
Page: 357 pages
First Published: 2006



Chapter 1. A Slovakian journalist enters a camp. As fearful as he is to embark on an unfamiliar territory, he keeps going. He is on a mission: ‘Have you ever heard of Zoli Novotna?’, to which an old man replied with contempt, ‘No, I don’t know that name, do you understand me, fatneck, and even if I did, that’s not something we would talk about.’

Chapter 2. Enters Zoli, a young Romani/Gypsy woman growing up in Slovakia during the Second World War. The chapter, told in her own voice (apparently to her daughter) tells the reader how at six years old, she lost her entire family in the hands of the Fascist guards. She and her grandfather, the only survivors, flees their town to join a group of traveling musicians. Her grandfather, despite the norm, thought her how to read and write. She married young to a much older man, became a poet and performed with her traveling group at the National Theater. ‘It was one of the happiest times I remember, daughter …. and it seemed to me that the spring of my life had come.’

That’s just about everything I know because I can’t get myself to finish up the book. I got halfway through the third chapter, told by an Englishman named Stephen Swann who found his life’s obsession through Zoli.

The switching of perspectives from the third person to the first person is confusing and I feel disconnected from Zoli, which was supposed to be the main character of the story. This surprises me because the switching of perspectives did work for me in McCann’s more recent novel Let The Great World Spin. And I think the part about the journalist in the first chapter, though served as a mystery element, appears to be unnecessary.

With that being said, nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Chapter 2. This is my first encounter with the Gypsy in a book (or in a film for that matter) and the descriptions of Romani life and culture were to me very informational (it even inspired me to do my own research on the Net). And I have to give it to McCann for his effortless and brilliant writing. I will not hesitate to read his other novels in the future.

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