Zoli, Colum McCann

I melted into this book. It melted me. I was totally and utterly dissolved by McCann’s magnificent prose, his stellar characterisation and the soft, sensitive nuances of his story. I savoured every moment of this tale and when I reached the final page I was so saddened by the fact that it was over. And it wasn’t the story (although that was fascinating in itself), rather, what took my breath away was McCann’s way with language, how the words lifted off the page and danced right before my eyes, always just out of my reach, austere and fraught with something intense.

Rather than spoil the tale I will only tell you that Zoli tells the story of a gypsy girl and her poetry. It is interlaced with contextual references to the Holocaust, to the towns that Zoli encounters and the events in Hungary following the war.  What I want to share are snippets of McCann’s language …

“Conka had a bruise on her neck where Fyodor had been rough with her on the last night before he went into the hills to join the fight. Something in her sagged. She walked around like a sheet on a string between trees.”

For me, this description was so simple but so full of colour and shade. Conka is a minor character in this text but McCann has made her tangible in the way he describes her. He does the same thing with Zoli, his protagonist: “I was a poet. I had written things down.” The statement resonates without adjectives to weigh it down, it circles around Zoli throughout this story, sometimes comforting her and sometimes mocking her with intense derision.

The joy of McCann’s writing is bound with the way that he experiments with story-telling. It is clear that he, as an author is intrigued with the nature of stories, the power of the individual’s story and the nuances that each story betrays through the act of its telling. This appreciation of the nature of representation is a constant subtext in McCann’s prose.

“There are those of us who haven’t yet told our stories, or refuse to tell them, and so we become them: we hide away inside the memory until we can no longer stand the shell or the shock – perhaps that’s me, or perhaps I must tell it before it’s forgotten or becomes, like everything else, something else… Memory has a heavy backspin, yet it’s still impossible to land exactly where we took off.”

When Zoli reads her poetry or song, the breath is sucked out of the space. I felt the same thing reading McCann’s narrative, “the tent fell silent: only the sound of the breeze through the trees outside, ancient, unpackaged” could be heard. “The purpose of her poems was not to dazzle with any astonishing thought, but to make one single moment of existence unforgettable.” It’s ironic really that the way that Zoli feels about words resonates so with me (and probably with other readers): “She turned and walked the length of the shelves, said she could feel the words running like horses.” Such is Zoli’s power that her voice chains people …

“Translation had always got in the way of definition. Listening to the radio in the coalshed in Liverpool with my father, I had dreamed myself into the landscape of his country. It was not the place I had foreseen – endless mountains, rushing rivers – but it didn’t matter anymore, I’d become someone new and the thought of her held me fast.”

“There are always moments we return to. We are in them. We rest there and there is nothing else.” This is Zoli. She drowns in the words, without realising the political implications they have.

“She had only meant for it to be good, for it to pierce the difference between stars and ceilings, but it did not, and now the words were shaped, carved, placed – they had become fact. I have sold my voice, she thinks, to the arguments of power.”

And so the book shifts from a story about a gypsy girl and her poetry to the subtext which explores the notions of power – political power and the power that Zoli slowly realises she has over others, the power of love and illusion, conquest and control.

I could go on, I have highlighted whole paragraphs of this book to reread and relish. I cannot speak highly enough about this book. McCann is a genius, a master wordsmith, a magnificent story teller, a pleasure to read.


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