Posted on Mar 2, 2012 in Fiction

by Colum McCann
Random House, 2006

“If you keep quiet, you die. If you speak, you die. So speak and die”   – Tahar Djaout

That is one of the three epigraphs that begin Colum McCann’s story of Zoli.  A story – about the Romani, or – as often called, often pejoratively called – Gypsies.

A nomadic people they have resisted for centuries, even well meaning attempts to offer them four walls, permanent homes.  And so often they call themselves simply – travelers.

Zoli and her grandfather are Romani travelers.  They had been away, together, when the men had come.  The ones who had forced all her family, all the others with them in the circled wagons – on to the ice, to the middle of the frozen lake.  Women, children, babies, men, the old ones, the horses, the wagons. Forced them onto the ice and then encircled them with fires. Melted the ice. Watched every one of them plunge into the waters, scream and die. They could do that and not care, these men, because they were only killing Gypsies. Getting rid of vermin.

Zoli and her grandfather had returned to silence – where once there had been voices and laughter and song. When her grandfather saw the ashes on the ice, saw the open water, he turned the wagon away and they traveled – rode and rode until across borders they found other kin.

And so Colum McCann begins to take us inside the Gypsies’ story – an all too familiar story of minorities who are persecuted because of their ethnicity, the color of their skin, because of old generational fears and hatreds.  McCann’s purpose to help us to see the plight of these “others” and then dare us to forget.

We’ll follow Zoli as she grows, marries, becomes a national Russian hero/poet after the War. And then – hated by her own people because she has dared to speak of them in her poetry (as well as being a woman who can read, write) – banished from her people. Though this will not be the end of her story.  There is yet hope.

An important read – this book. Well researched. (Written while McCann was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.)

I’ll take away several quotes and passages. Among them these:

“He thought that the purpose of her poems was not to dazzle with any astonishing thought, but to make one single moment of existence unforgettable.” p.115

“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. ” p. 222

“[Enrico] said to me, in later years, so much later, that the reason life is so strange is that we have simply no idea what is around the next corner, and it was an obvious idea but one most of us had learned to forget.” p.267

An important book.  An unforgettable book.