Eve Patten, ‘ The politics of literacy’, review of Zoli by Colm McCann, in The Irish Times ( 23 Sept. 2006 ), Weekend.

[ Following 2003’s ‘Dancer’, McCann’s second foray into bio-fiction never seems quite comfortable. ]

In Bury Me Standing, her 1995 account of the Roma of post-war Europe, Isabel Fonseca tells the story of Bronislawa Wajs, a Polish gypsy singer who, in defiance of Romani tradition, taught herself to read and write. Wajs - or Papusza, as she became known - was discovered by the Polish writer Jerzy Ficowski, who began transcribing her poetry during the 1950s. Despite her attempts to reclaim her works, even to the extent of going in person to the publishing house to demand their return, her poems of Romani life appeared in print. She felt, she said to Ficowski, “skinned alive”. Having contravened Roma laws, Papusza was put on trial by her community and declared magherdo or unclean, then sent into permanent exile.

This story is the basis of Colum MacCann’s latest novel, Zoli. Though the setting is Slovakia, not Poland, the circumstances of the eponymous Zoli’s life with a harp-playing kumpanija in the forests of central Europe closely mirror those of Papusza, building on the latter’s fateful bridging of Romani culture and the world of the gadze, or outsiders. A saga of the twentieth century, Zoli is a study of the prejudice and persecution endured by Europe ’s gypsies (the word itself is used advisedly by McCann), and a portrait of a woman almost destroyed by conflicting demands on her creativity.

Writers have long been intrigued - Fonseca calls it “intoxicated” - by the gypsy, and representations of the European Roma range from Walter Starkie’s 1933 Raggle Taggle to Tony Gatlif’s brilliant 1997 film Gadjo Dilo. McCann’s Zoli picks up the picturesque aspects of this tradition, the intrinsic romance of the subject colouring his scenes of kumpanija life - the singing and the campfires in the forests, the rituals of a Roma wedding, the women decorating their hair with silver coins. But inevitably given its collision with mid-century European history, this is also a traumatic account, following a violent trail of persecution first under the Slovakian Hlinka fascist guard and then the Nazis, when the musicians had to bury their harps in the woods and hide beneath the riverbank as their companions were hanged on the lampposts of Bratislava .

Within this context, Zoli’s story is foremost an engagement with the politics of literacy. Like Papusza, she becomes a celebrated performer among her own people, but when her poems and songs fall into the hands of an English/Slovakian scholar, Stephen Swann, she finds herself exposed to a gadze world desperate to use her - to read her - as a symbol of authenticity and originality. In the camp, she hides books under her skirts, respectful of the Romani belief that print culture belongs to an outsider system of control and oppression. Yet in the city, she performs on stage and radio, visits bookshops and reads Mayakovsky, until her immersion in literature and strategic co-option by the communist ministry of culture leads to crisis. Caught in a cultural no-man’s land, she is a filter for the novel’s reconceptualisation of illiteracy and orality, authorship and knowledge.

But is Zoli more than a filter, a historical representative? Fonseca originally used Papusza as a cautionary reminder that the Roma cannot truly be captured in any language other than their own. Unfortunately McCann reinforces that paradox, largely because his Zoli fails to hold definition as a character. The descriptions of her childhood are fresh and perceptive, as is the detailing of the physical hardships she endures, but as a woman caught between the polarised dangers of speech and silence, she lacks any sustained expression of mental anguish. In the second half of the novel in particular, her emotional responses seem cliched or unlikely, too often restricted to physical gestures like chopping off her hair or fingering her knife. Why, above all, does McCann hand the narrative over to Swann in the crucial episodes where Zoli performs and publishes her work - the episodes where her voice is most required? Towards the end her psychological substance fragments into a kind of fugue, as if her author simply retreats, deferentially, from the complexity of her cultural position.

This is McCann’s second foray into bio-fiction. Dancer (2003), his portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, was a sharp and feisty study of the burden of talent. Zoli follows a similar outline and achieves a huge amount, but never seems quite comfortable. Nureyev was an individual; Zoli is too much of an abstract, drawn to represent the plight of an ethnic constituency. This puts McCann under constant pressure to squeeze material - post-war policies such as the 1950s forced resettlement programmes or historical events such as the fall of the Berlin wall - into a space already overflowing with anthropological detail. In the end the “researched” quality of the narrative undermines its intimacy, while the breakneck attempt at cradle-to-grave inclusiveness comes at the expense of chronological clarity and imaginative depth.

Despite its over-reaching, however, there is a great warmth in the novel, sparked by the author’s genuine sense of commitment to this woman in both her actual and fictional forms. The story of Zoli deserves to be told, and with his gift for unpicking the seams of history, McCann brings to the fore its sad keynotes of manipulation and betrayal. Best of all, he sent me back to Fonseca’s wonderful study of the European Roma, whose language, as we are reminded in that book’s opening pages, contains no designated verbs for “to read” and “to write”.

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