I first heard of Zoli and its author Colum McCann on Bookworm, a weekly podcast that I religiously listen to. I was convinced early into the half hour...moreI first heard of Zoli and its author Colum McCann on Bookworm, a weekly podcast that I religiously listen to. I was convinced early into the half hour show that I needed to read this book partly because of my long fascination with all things Eastern European and partly for the insight that McCann expounded upon host Michael Sliverblatt’s always unique questions. The Irish author gives an original take on the Roma and a not too far flung connection I sense is the common history of persecution between the Irish by the English and later Americans, and the not so subtle discrimination of the Roma by most of central and eastern Europe. Add to this McCann’s talents with prose and the loose fictionalization of Bronisława Wajs, a Polish Romani woman known as Papusza in her culture, and one has the novel Zoli.
The book starts in 1930’s Czechoslovakia with the childhood of Marienka “Zoli” Novotna and her Grandfather witnessing the deaths of their gypsy family by the fascist Hlinka Guard. McCann brings us into the post WW1 years of Eastern Europe where political chaos and instability are rampant. The Roma live on the outskirts of the societies they orbit by constantly traveling in close communities that share a culture that extends beyond national boundaries and tongues of the land. Gypsies are known as thieves and tricksters that live on the backs of hard working people, wandering the shadows with little of their own and nothing to offer contemporary life. While rival governments like socialists and fascists wrestle for power, the Roma keep to themselves and away from the centers of power that equally threaten their existence. And so a six year old girl and her grandfather watch in hiding as their kumpania (clan or extended tripe) including horses and wagons are forced onto an iced lake and soldiers set fire to the brush around the shore. The ice starts to crack, then break and the reader stands with the old man and girl watching a history and culture drown.
So begins the life of Zoli. Through this early lens she will become a prominent Romani woman that’s over flowing with talent as a singer and poet, and later as a kind of underground cultural icon inhabiting the imaginations of all kinds in post Soviet Europe.
Stephen Swan, a young journalist character of English and Slovakian descent that is a champion, lover, admirer, and unbeknownst exploiter of Zoli, soliloquizes;
"There are those of us who haven’t yet told our stories, or refuse to tell them, and so we become them: we hide away inside the memory until we can no longer stand the shell or the shock – perhaps that’s me, or perhaps I must tell it before it’s forgotten or becomes, like everything else, something else."
Colum McCann brings together a European history of diversity and atrocity while giving his characters personalities that reflect both. In a story that spans her birth to death, Zoli is filled with love and drive but is constrained by the times she inhabits be it the war years or the cold war years spent in seclusion, and even the new found freedom of modern Slovakia. McCann’s Zoli is an image of repression bearing the lost gifts of humanity’s darkest days.
As a child Zoli’s grandfather gives her books and teaches her to read which is taboo in the Romani culture of the day. It’s a verbal, extremely insular culture that frowns upon education from the outside. Until the second half of the 20th century gypsy heritage and history have largely been past down by word of mouth and in so doing, inadvertently helped to perpetuate some of the urban myths of the Roma that are so often used against them. Zoli’s grandfather notices this and secretly teaches his daughter to be literate in the hopes of preserving their culture. All the while Zoli flourishes in the Romani traditions of music, and later as a singer commands local crowds of Roma eventually being noticed by intellectuals that subsequently translate her songs into books of poetry and finally the post WWII communist government of Czechoslovakia. The new government wants to bring the Roma out of the forest and into the cities by simultaneously embracing and assimilating them into modern society. Zoli is the heart and tool of this movement and ultimately becomes a kind of gypsy martyr that falls from the graces of her people and is eventually exiled from the traditions she cherishes to live a life of poverty on the run from the law and her people.
"There is an old Romani song that says we share little pieces of our hearts with people and the further we go along, the less we have for ourselves until there is not enough left to go around and that’s called traveling, and it’s also called death, and since it happens to us all there’s nothing more ordinary than that."
Zoli becomes a ghost that ironically lives the true gypsy life. She comes close to death many times as she escapes angry locals, experiences sickness and starvation, gun wielding soldiers, and the intense cold of Eastern Europe. The lens she sees through becomes tarnished by her trust in no one. McCann shows all of her through the lives of many, making stylistic shifts in his writing that confuse and intrigue the reader while guiding us through the breadth of 20th and early 21st century Europe. And finally we are left at the end with a clandestine allegory that makes this novel spectacular.(less)
The critically lauded Arthur Phillips and his fourth novel, The Song Is You, is a 21st century meditation on love and music that washes the reader in...moreThe critically lauded Arthur Phillips and his fourth novel, The Song Is You, is a 21st century meditation on love and music that washes the reader in poetic prose and imagery, but ultimately amounts to ‘old wine in a new bottle’ or for me, just plain old bullshit.
Phillips’ writing is amazingly good, and it’s on constant display throughout. He’s a natural at writing prose that’s poetic and effective. Much of the praise this novel has amassed is due in part to his skillful writing that weaves narration and description into characters that perfectly fit between the covers of this book. The dialog feels real and fits his character’s mindsets without overindulging the author’s mission to communicate their raison d’etre. However, the dialog alone cannot keep this book afloat for me while the story drowns deeper and deeper into the quicksand of romantic mushiness.
Dialog on display: A conversation between a detective and Cait O’Dwyer, the Irish pop singer that propels half the book.
“I’m performing on Thursday night. Do you think I’ll be in danger from that dirtbag?”
“Difficult to say. I’m not psychic. But if you’re inviting me to the show, I’ll think I’ll pass.” She nodded twice – he finally landed a jab after all her swings – but she quickly laughed.
“I wasn’t. You have to work late, solving a nice murder?”
“No. No excuse. I just don’t necessarily think I’ll see the best of you under those circumstances. Pop music, you know.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“I think you know that what you do is temporary. Cheap. It’s for kids. I understand – a person’s got to make a living. I don’t think less of you for doing that to pay your rent. But it’s not the most interesting part of you by a mile.”
“And you can see the most interesting part?"
“If your job was dressing up as rabbit in a theme park, would you want me to come visit you and pretend you were a real rabbit? I hope you’re laughing because you see how right-on the comparison is. You go sing; I’d worry if you really thought it was a big deal.”
The story follows a middle aged commercial artist named Julian that once had high ambitions of creating meaningful art, but is now broken of his younger dreams by the death of his two year-old son and subsequent failed marriage. On a snowy night in New York City, he finds himself in a bar watching the aforementioned Cait O’Dwyer sing with her band. Somewhat impressed, he buys her demo CD and eventually transfers it to his iPod. Through the MP3 player her music comes alive and seems to speak to him personally in a special way that ignites his passion for Cait and for life again. As Julian is already a musical junkie that’s always plugged into the world that his iPod contains, Cait’s music inspires him to become a fan in a shadowy, deceptive way that’s usually called stocking. He contacts her via cryptic notes scribbled on beer coasters and online forums that eventually piques her reciprocated interest in him and fuels her creativity. And so the story plays out with the two following, stalking, and playing a game of tease and chase that ultimately comes to an unsatisfactory end. While the end generally does avoid clichés in an expected way; it’s nothing new to trade an expected ending for a less expected but equally banal finale.
One funny thing about this book, is that it’s completely contemporary right now, but in the future it will fade and age into a period piece like, Hemingway’s, A Farewell To Arms. Whether this is intentional, I don’t know, but while I read of websites, cell phones, text messaging, usernames, emails, web forums, iPods, search engines; it makes me kind of chuckle because it will date the book just like the music Cait seems to passionately sing will date her like the real singers she reminds me of. Think; Jewel, Paula Cole, Joan Osborne. Like the detective’s words above, it’s temporary music – especially so when compared to Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco; artists that exude longevity.
The story ain’t bad, but what hurts this novel even more is the believability of the characters and their actions. The genres of Fantasy and Magical Realism are not present here, but I feel that I’ve been lied to when I read this in the supposed realistic setting of present day America. One can tell the truth in so many ways, but when there’s a connection that seems not to fit very well, forcing the truth comes off as tripped up and ultimately a lie. Validity escapes reality and succumbs to a world of spectacle that is more fit for an average dramatic movie. In fact I think this story would work better as a movie than a book. Give it to the Coen Brothers and I’m sure once they inject it with their trademark dry wit and irony, and adapt the already good dialog, a fine movie would result. But that’s not a reality. Yet Phillips’ way of telling a tale of lost and found love has garnered him critical fame as a great writer – which is true of his prose – but for me, the pretty writing just serves a mediocre story that is shallow and empty. I’ll give Arthur Phillips another chance one day, but for now he’s going to have to go to the back of the line and wait a long time! (less)