Zoli - Colum McCann While I read this book I grappled with my lack of understanding. This is a book of historical fiction; I could not make up my mind if I wanted to learn the details about the life of Romani poet Papsuza (1910-1987), on which this book is loosely based, or whether I should just read the book for the delight of falling into the story. Only when I stopped trying to learn the factual details and let myself just plain enjoy the story did I enjoy the book. In the process I did learn very much about the Romani culture. I learned a bit about Papsuza too, but there are major differences between the main character in the novel, Zoli, and the real person Papsuza.

If I have any advice to give, it is to not demand complete understanding as you read this book. By the end you will understand. I was gripping after threads to master the subject. I was scared I would miss something and fail to understand. My advice: sit back, read the book, enjoy the sentences and do not worry if you do not understand everything. You will understand in the end. Many sentences can be interpreted in different ways. If you are looking for the truth, for the facts, you will surely be frustrated. I am giving this book four stars, because I love the writing. I love the message imparted by the book, and I did learned about Romani people, their hardships and lifestyle, with a focus on those living in Eastern Europe from the 30s through to the 21st Century.

This paragraph concerns the differences between Zoli’s life, the main character of this book and Papsuza. Papsuza was of Polish origin. Zoli was Slovakian. Romani women were not taught to read or write, but both Papsuza and Zoli could. However Zoli learned from her grandfather while Papsuza stole thing to trade them for lessons. The very biggest difference is that in real life Papsuza was interned in a mental institution and spent the end of her life, the last 34 years, all alone. McCann has changed that ending and has her marry a wonderful Italian man with whom she has a daughter.

I needed McCann’s ending. I am glad he changed it. This is not a book about one woman. It is about Eastern European Romani people and it is a book that poses philosophical questions. In the lines of the book you will find the statement: “Nothing is ever fully understood.” Zoli says this, and it is clearly evident in the whole way the book is written. Life is a constant struggle to understand, and so is the book. If you enjoy pondering philosophical issues and don’t mind the brain exercise necessary to figure out what is going on, then the book is for you. This is a central theme. Listen to what is said about Henri: ”He knew in advance all that is worth knowing.” This is not to be taken as a compliment. But then humor is thrown in: “I have gone through so many of them (boyfriends), maybe I should get an accountant.” Another theme that is returned to again and again is inferred in this sentence: “The river is not where it starts or it ends.” Sentences such as this are thrown at you. I say that river is life. You may interpret this differently.

In any case the writing is pure poetry – albeit free verse and unrhymed. Zoli speaks of gullible non-Romani: “You can make them swallow anything with enough sugar and tears. They will lick the tears and sugar and make of them a paste called sympathy.” Now cannot the Romani criticize us for once?! Or this: “Once I was guilty of thinking only good things happen. Then I was guilty of thinking they would never happen again. Now I wait and make no judgment. You ask me what I love....” Then the elderly Zoli names things so beautiful as fruit trees and walks, blue wool mittens, coffee, wind…..or a daughter’s first step.

Now I must mention what has bothered me. When I was stuck in the mode of trying to learn about the life of Papsuza, I was extremely annoyed about the confusion and lack of clear facts concerning the transition from the Fascist to Communist powers in Slovakia. I thought the sentences were not clear. I wanted more dates and clear facts. I thought I would not understand history! But the message of how the Romani people suffered and how their lives were lived does become clear without excessive dates and precise historical facts. You do get some. And in fact you do get the basics events of Papsuza’s life too! If you want more, look at this link: http://romani.uni-graz.at/rombase/cgi-bin/artframe.pl?src=data/pers/papusza.en.xml. Look at her photo. She had an eye that “strayed”.

Another complaint I had was how the narration switched from third person to first and back and forth. This is confusing. Zoli is spoken of in third person and also in the first person. I very much preferred when she spoke in the first person. I disliked when I read that she did that and she did this, when I wanted to get inside her head. Later, when she does speak in first person, that the narrator of the audiobook (Nigel Carrington) was a man, was disturbing. This really threw me off ....until I got used to it. I panicked and thought: “Who is speaking?! This is some man! Oh gosh, I am totally lost.” The dates and places jump. There is a beginning section by a journalist that is further confusing. I warn you, this is a book that is scarily confusing until you just plain relax and listen/read. You do end up understanding. Don’t panic, as I did!

Originally I thought there was a conflict between the theme of the book and the writing style. But then when I got over my need to have full control and understanding of every sentence, when I let myself enjoy the words and philosophical questions, when I stopped demanding that I must learn some historical facts, that is when I realized I was totally enjoying myself. And I did learn a lot about Romani culture and suffering. About Papsuza too. I do highly recommend this book.

Well, having been blown away by this author's Let the Great World Spin, I must immediately read another. The difficulty was choosing. This or Dancer or another?

I might be annoyed by the mixture of fact and fiction. Maybe read instead: A False Dawn: Volume 16: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia, which Christi told me about :0)