Colum McCann’s Zoli

I picked up a copy of Colum McCann’s new novel, Zoli, when I was in New York for the PEN festival, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, including my editor at Algonquin. The story begins in the 1930s, when a young Roma girl named Marienka (nicknamed Zoli) loses her entire family in an attack by Hlinka guards. (Fascist attacks against such minorities were common in Czechoslovakia at the time.) Zoli escapes with her grandfather, and together they join a kumpanija, a traveling group of Romani musicians. Zoli’s extraordinary ability to remember and to write songs and poems soon attracts notice–from Swann, an expat translator, and Stransky, a Slovak poet and editor. Zoli’s growing fame is quickly co-opted by the Communists, who want to make of her a poster child of Romani “integration” in a new society. The novel explores questions of belonging–national, cultural, linguistic–as well as class and ideology, without ever once slipping into a harangue. A rare feat these days. McCann immersed himself in Roma culture to write this novel, and the care with which he draws this world is palpable. He breathes life into very different characters, giving them each the space in which to tell their story. A great book.