Zoli, by Colum McCann

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Colum McCann finds the world to be a dark, seedy place where nothing good can last.  At least, that's what I think he feels after reading or trying to read two of his books.  Last year I read Let the Great World Spin, as a part of my effort to read more male authors, and more literary fiction.  Reading that review now, I can see that my feelings on McCann's writing are very similar now, having tried unsuccessfully to read his novel Zoli.

Here is what Amazon has to say about the plot of Zoli,

 A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature. 
Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann. 
But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Sounds like a sweeping tale of love and transcendence, doesn't it?  Instead, reading it felt like being sunk into a dark, bleak  world where even the most beautiful, innocent things were tainted by something cold and dreary.  At first I was drawn into the world of the Roma in eastern Europe during the early 20th century.  I knew that they had been persecuted, but I didn't know a lot about their traditions or culture.  But eventually I began to feel weighted down with all of the misery of the place.  I suppose that was probably purposeful on McCann's part.  After all, the Roma were persecuted, and we are talking about the start of the Soviet Union and the cruel grip of communism here.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, that I read seemed to speak to the transcendence of the human spirit.  Even the love story was bleak, and felt strangely unemotional.  It is not that I am adverse to reading melancholy, haunting, tragic books.  I read and loved The Road, and found the triumph of the father's love despite the complete destruction of the world to be meaningful, even if the events of the novel themselves were bleak.   A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite books, and it is undoubtedly tragic and heart-wrenching.  But even within the horror of living as a widow or a battered wife in Taliban Afghanistan, there were moments of tenderness, or beauty, or light.  Not so with McCann's books.

Maybe I am being slightly unfair, since I didn't finish the book.  Maybe the page after I finally gave up started a trend showing something, anything positive in the human experience.  Sadly, I couldn't take the unending dreariness long enough to find out.

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