Lacking a concrete sense of place while rendering the life of a nomadic culture, in which "the only thing that seemed right was change," is a supremely daunting task for any novelist. But bringing to life one 20th century Slovakian Romani ("gypsy" being a somewhat derogatory term) with emotional artistry and poetic clarity is precisely what Colum McCann achieves in his fourth novel, Zoli (Random House, 352 pages, $24.95). Re-envisioning the life of Zoli Novotna begins when Hlinkas, Slovakian pro-Nazi militia, force her entire family into the center of a frozen lake. "Fires were lit in a ring...guns were pointed so they could not escape." After she and her grandfather, both amazingly unscathed, join another group, she learns how to read, write and sing. Her songs, which "create poetry from the roots up," earn her acclaim among not only her people, but from academic and poet Martin StrÁnsk and Stephen Swann, his assistant. After recording her songs and printing a book of her poems at the men's request, Zoli achieves momentary acclaim, but these artifacts—a form of permanence and technology viewed suspiciously by her people—lead to Zoli's banishment, forcing her to wander alone.
Only once does McCann relay an entire poem or song of Zoli's. Instead, his language works double-time, crafting the novel with meter and vibrant description. "Days pass in a furious blink," he writes of the passage of time, or penning one character's stance as "there was a syntax in the way I carried my body." The gypsy habit of redefining items—OK, stealing them (motorcycle blinkers are stolen by children, only to reappear as pendants)—adds a seemingly effortless descriptive touch throughout.
The impermanence of every aspect of Zoli's life is relayed through the structure, taking her from her own clan and into fascist Hungary and modern-day Europe—even putting the narrative into the hands of Swann himself, the Brit who briefly lives among Zoli's group and falls in love with her.
The result of Irish, New York-based McCann getting into the mind of an outcast, mid-century female gypsy, and depicting life's journey as a state of constantly heartbreaking yet beautiful exile, is a simply astonishing, enchanting work of historical fiction. Crafted with the help of years of research (thorough acknowledgements are included), Zoli deserves a permanent place in the literature of the placeless.
ColumMcCann reads from
at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 16 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4631. Free.