In the 1930s, Slovak Hlinka guards drove a Romany family out onto the ice and kept them there, with guns pointed, until the ice cracked and the caravans disappeared under the water. Only two members escaped, the patriarch and his 6-year-old granddaughter, whom he nicknamed Zoli.
In Zoli, Colum McCann's sweeping new novel, loosely based on the life of Romany poet Bronislawa "Papusza" Wajs, the girl grows up to be a singer in her adopted clan of traveling harpists and violinists. That might have been the end of it, except that her grandfather, a secret reader of Marx and Engels, sent her to school in defiance of Romany tradition. Despite beatings from kumpanija members at home and being spat on at school, Zoli learns to read and write. More significant, she learns to write down the songs that come to her in her head.
In his 2003 novel "Dancer," McCann reenvisioned the life of ballet star Rudolf Nureyev. In "Zoli," he takes on another Soviet artist of humble beginnings who also ends up being repudiated by her family. "Zoli" spans the Holocaust – in which the Roma were also targets – the coming of the Communists, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. McCann takes a reader inside the often marginalized culture in a way that his journalist character, who is seeking information on Zoli in the present day, never achieves.
After the Communists take over, the Romany enjoy a brief period of hope, thinking that the years of discrimination and repression are over. A Communist poet, Martin Stransky, discovers Zoli and seeks to turn her into the poster child for the new "literate proletariat."
"Look, everywhere else, they're the joke of the week. Thieves. Conmen. Just imagine if we can raise them up.... We – you, me, her – we can make a whole new art form, get those songs written down," he gushes to his assistant and translator, Stephan Swann, a half-Slovak expatriate from England. "She's a voice from the dust."
Stransky and Swann work with Zoli for several years, taping her and publishing her poems, first in a chapbook and then a complete volume of verse. McCann narrates this section through the voice of Swann, who becomes infatuated with Zoli and ultimately betrays her.
But betrayal was implicit from the beginning, given that Zoli's "mentor" seems to see her as a kind of exotic pet rather than an immensely talented woman whose goals might not necessarily dovetail with "the greater good."
" 'Perfect,' [Stransky] said as he pulled his pencil through one of her lines. He was convinced that Zoli was creating a poetry from the roots up, but he still wanted to put manners on it."
At first, Stransky's plan works admirably. Zoli is feted throughout Slovakia, with her poems heard over the radio. And her own people are amazed at the idea that one of their own could fill a theater with gadzi (foreigners) wanting to hear their songs.
Then the Communist government makes Zoli the face of their planned assimilation, the "Big Halt." Despite her pleas, and the deep unwillingness of her people, the Romany were saved from the "troubles of primitivism" and "allowed to halt." They were rounded up by government soldiers and forced to live in tenement houses. Their horses were either "resettled" on collective farms or shot, and the giant wheels of their caravans were burned.
"They always ask you to be grateful, chonnoroeja, after they have locked you up," Zoli writes to her daughter, Francesca, whom she calls "little moon."
Her kumpanija blame Zoli for Law 74, declare her unclean, and banish her. The wording actually would have done the Communists proud: "They sentenced her to Pollution for Life in the Category of Infamy for the Betrayal of Roma Affairs to the Outsiders."
Zoli, full of self-loathing and vowing never to write again, burns all her original poems and destroys the tapes and sets off on foot, heading in the direction of Paris. Her journey and the new home she creates make for riveting reading.
On her way, Zoli learns to deal with the gadzi in a way that she wasn't able to master in her years with Stransky and Swann, when she would disappear in the woods with her family for months.
"You can make them swallow any lie with enough sugar and tears," Zoli muses to Francesca. "They will lick the tears and sugar and make of them a paste called sympathy. Try it, chonorroeja, and you might feel yourself dissolve."
But the novel isn't bleak at its core. As Zoli writes,"all hardships, chonorroeja, have a streak of laughter in them," and McCann makes sure that she encounters kindness and moments of peace on her path.
Throughout the novel, McCann plays around with point of view. As noted, Swann narrates the Communist years. Modern sections tend to be third person, while Zoli's childhood and journey across the mountains are related in a first-person account written to Francesca. Not surprisingly, the most riveting portions of the novel are those narrated by Zoli herself. (The sections involving the journalist are the least involving, but they are also, thankfully, the shortest.)
The way Zoli finally gets to Paris, and what she does once she reaches her goal give a lovely sweetness to the coda. And by that time both she and McCann have earned it.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.