Gypsy Poet, Exiled

Zoliby By Colum McCannRandom House, 352 p., $24.95
Several years ago I was in Rocky Sullivans pub on Lexington Avenue in New York City for one of their famed literary readings. The Irish-born writer Colum McCann was said to be unveiling an excerpt from a work in progress. By then McCannin such novels as Songdogs and This Side of Brightness and story collections like Fishing the Sloe-Black Riverhad established himself as a writer to watch. Central to all of his work, up to that point, were his native Ireland and his adopted home of New York City.

Hence the shock and awe when McCann began his reading with a cinematic portrait of war-ravaged Soviet Russia, before zooming in for a close-up: a child, who would become the world famous dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Dancer, McCanns fictionalized life of Nureyev, turned out to be one of the most memorable novels of 2004.

McCanns latest, Zoli, can be seen as a companion volume of sorts to Dancer. Both are fictional explorations of real people. (The Polish poet Papusza, who died in 1987, was the basis for McCanns titular Romani poetess.) Both novels begin with child protagonists who overcome adversity to become troubled, monumental artists.

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Perhaps most important, Nureyev and Zoli come of age during the rise and spread of Communism. The political is so personal in both Dancer and Zoli that it is both utterly pervasive and seemingly invisible. Initially viewed as a cultural hero, Zoli is eventually deemed a criminal by the Communist authorities. They sentenced her to Pollution for Life in the category of Infamy for the Betrayal of Romani Affairs to the Outsiders, McCann writes. Thus begins Zolis banishment from her not-so Edenic homeland. She wanders Europe, crossing essentially meaningless borders.

Gusts of wind carried me along, Zoli says at one point, and indeed, a central image from both Dancer and Zoli is that of history as a powerful force of nature, one that can be overcome or at least endured, but never ignored. Zoli and Nureyev are both forced to adapt, flee or evolve not only because of the people in their lives but because of events far beyond their control. To call Zoli a pawn would be to ignore her powers as an artist and human being, which McCann renders excellently, often in stunning prose. In the end, McCann seems fascinated by humanitys persistence, how the sometimes mad desire to express ourselves is shaped or altered, but never crushed, by overwhelming forces of repression.

McCann introduces Zoli as a little girl, alongside her humorous and shrewd grandfather. He and his granddaughter are the only survivors from a spasm of violence aimed at Romani (as Gypsies are now preferably called). [M]y mother was gone, my father, my brother, my sisters and cousins, too, Zoli says. They had been driven out on the ice by the Hlinka guards. Fires were lit in a ring around the shore, and guns were pointed so they could not escape. The caravans were forced to the middle of the lake as the day grew warmer. The ice racked, the wheels sank, and the rest followed.

The most important thing Zoli learns from her grandfather is the power of expression, whatever form it takes: song, poetry, a radio program, the written word or even silence. After all, given the historical treatment of the Romani, just because Zoli can read and write does not mean it is always wise to do so.

The opening of Zoli has a lushness and immediacy not quite present in the remainder of the book. McCann has chosen to tell the story through multiple perspectives while zipping back and forth across time and landscapes. This decision certainly gives the reader a broader sense of Zolis life and times. She becomes an object of fascination to an Irish-Slovakian scholar named Stephen Swann, who not only falls in love with Zoli but seeks to bring her work to a wide audience. This seemingly benevolent effort sets up Zolis fall, allowing the authorities to manipulate her work while also creating suspicion in the eyes of her own people.

Thus, McCann is not merely critiquing oppressive forms of political rule but also what we might call the soft cultural imperialism of those, like Swann, who are so seduced by the unfamiliar and exotic that they are compelled to export it rather than merely bask in it. This leaves Zoli angry and crushed. I have sold my voice, she thinks, to the arguments of power.

And yet, McCann may very well be going for something even more disturbing. At one point he writes: You can make them swallow any lie with enough sugar and tears. You might say this about artists as well as politicians.

In the end, Zoli is a melancholy novel. McCann conveys horror, betrayal and yes, joy, but it all serves to illustrate just how sad it is that a character such as Zoli must endure all that she does. Zoli is not the bravura performance Dancer was, but it is another compelling effort by McCann, whose own evolution as an artist has indeed been a joy to witness.

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