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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Memory has a heavy backspin, yet it's impossible to land exactly where we took off", 7 Mar 2007
This review is from: Zoli (Hardcover)
"Things in life have no real beginning, though our stories about them always do," says Zoli Novotna as she recounts her days growing up as a Gypsy in Slovakia in the 1930's. When fascist brutes murder her family and her grandfather ends up bringing her up, author Colum McCann captures Zoli's sense of tradition and nomadic life as she travels with her clan in their ornate caravans all over the countryside, wearing the ritual of gold coins in their hair.

Purposely keeping some of the older customs alive, with their modesty laws, whispered names, and their runic signs, the gypsies make a living for themselves across the land, every week a new place, existing almost entirely for music. Especially Zoli who finds consolation and pleasure in singing their songs that shift, and roll and change.

Zoli seems to warm to her circumstances, her childhood indeed happy for the most part. Yet the gypsies had been suffering at the foot of the fascists, seen by them no more than wild animals, even by the Hlinkas who were just like the Gestapo. Zoli and her group try to settle as far away from them as much as possible and keep to themselves.

Zoli grows older and becomes a woman and meets the Slovak poet, Martin Stransky, who takes her on as his muse and promotes her singing and also convinces her to write her songs down, she indeed becomes something of a superstar. Also paralleling her rise to stardom is the story of the young Stephen Swann who has come to Czechoslovakia, fired up by the thought of revolution as he works as a translator for Stransky.

Zoli in the blossom of youth when she meets Swann, and the two begin an affair, both sustained by the sense they are "stepping back into what we all once believed: revolution, equality, and poetry." And Zoli becomes a shining example of this new literary proletariat, with their revolutionary right to reclaim the written word.

It doesn't take long, however, for disillusionment to set in at the bleakness and inflexibility of the communist regime, with the country turning sour and losing its edge, "Our cures were so much less powerful than our wounds." Zoli's songs gradually become sad and declamatory, tales of bitterness and treachery, with the verses repeated over and over, "like the falling and layering of so many leaves."

Alternating between Zoli's account of her escape to the West and Swann's journey of self-discovery, McCann charts the transformation of a nation and also of her itinerant people. It is impossible to imagine more frightening circumstances than those that Zoli must endure as she walks in the wet winter fields, cast off from everything, her heart broken by the people around her.

With great insight, the author brings to the forefront the tragedy of the gypsies and the grand experiment of a government that wanted the best for the gypsies; the Law of 74, the Big Halt, "forty thousand people lumped into one in gigantic tower bocks with running water, electric switches, and heating..."

Throughout the course of the story, Zoli learns that none of the old rules, the old taboos, apply although she always holds them dear to her heart. Hers is a fragile existence, as she leans how to survive by tapping into the life-spring that went down to the center of the earth, rising from the well of her childhood.Mike Leonard March 07.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Jul 2008 12:02:53 BDT
Leeds lass says:
Why do you feel the need to tell `the whole story` in every single `review`....? Apart from giving away too much info and spoiling the stories for others, your `reviews` are quite tedious , don`t you know ?
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