three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
By: 
Colum McCann
user_rating: 
0

A-ZoliIn 1930s Czechoslovakia, after 6-year-old Zoli (a character loosely based on Romany poet Bronislawa "Papusza" Wajs) and her grandfather witness Fascist troops destroying their Gypsy tribe, they flee to a clan of Romany harpists. Zoli breaks traditional law and learns to read and write, marries at 14, and starts to transcribe her tribe’s oral culture. She also discovers her beautiful voice. After the war, in a Communist bloc determined to embrace the downtrodden, others discover her musical gift. But as Zoli becomes famous, she also becomes an unwitting spokesperson for the propagandist revolution that encourages Romany assimilation. Once her people hear her message, they will banish her for life—and Zoli will, once again, have to find her own way.
Random House. 333 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400063728

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Soaring and stumbling over decades of mid-century Eastern Europe, Zoli is a riveting novel, those buried harps the metaphor for the entire story. … And because the novel traces Zoli’s journey—through history, across borders, from precocious girl to legendary and then infamous woman—it also gives us a tapestry of an entire culture, one shrouded and then marginalized into near extinction." Gail Caldwell

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … The most riveting portions of the novel are those narrated by Zoli herself." Yvonne Zipp

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[McCann’s] prose is just plain gorgeous, even when depicting the simplest of circumstances. … Given the history of his own country, perhaps it is not so surprising it takes an Irishman to tell a very powerful story about community, assimilation and the pain of exile, as well as the joy and anguish of being different." June Sawyers

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Zoli becomes a flash point for her tribe while raising an important question: In a world driven by conformity and (more lately) consumerism, how can the outsider survive? … McCann’s story feels like an important reminder of one dimension that has been gladly left behind: the soul-deadening totalitarianism that snuffs out dissent and difference with the force of its bureaucracy." Ellen Emry Heltzel

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It is the characters that fall short. To a greater or lesser extent they seem little more than his ideas about them, and the roles he has them play." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

Zoli, Colum McCann’s fourth novel, astounded critics with its sheer range of vision. While painting detailed strokes of the political tumult of the mid- to late-20th century, from the Nazis to the Communists to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Zoli also personalizes the plights of individuals through different narrators, including an elderly Zoli. Vivid details, a gripping story, and fine prose complement this rare glimpse into an exiled culture. Only the New York Times critic described the characters as mouthpieces; all others praised Zoli as an exceptional, provocative read.

Also by the author

The Side of Brightness (1998): In early 1900s Manhattan, Treefrog, a homeless man, and Nathan Walker, a black man who digs the city’s subway tunnels, in turn narrate their tales of friendship, love, tragedy, and survival.