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A Romany poet who couldn't be silenced

Based loosely on a true story, 'Zoli' tells of an artist's struggle toward her goals.

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In the 1930s, Slovak Hlinka guards drove a Romany family out onto the ice and kept them there, with guns pointed, until the ice cracked and the caravans disappeared under the water. Only two members escaped, the patriarch and his 6-year-old granddaughter, whom he nicknamed Zoli.

In Zoli, Colum McCann's sweeping new novel, loosely based on the life of Romany poet Bronislawa "Papusza" Wajs, the girl grows up to be a singer in her adopted clan of traveling harpists and violinists. That might have been the end of it, except that her grandfather, a secret reader of Marx and Engels, sent her to school in defiance of Romany tradition. Despite beatings from kumpanija members at home and being spat on at school, Zoli learns to read and write. More significant, she learns to write down the songs that come to her in her head.

In his 2003 novel "Dancer," McCann reenvisioned the life of ballet star Rudolf Nureyev. In "Zoli," he takes on another Soviet artist of humble beginnings who also ends up being repudiated by her family. "Zoli" spans the Holocaust – in which the Roma were also targets – the coming of the Communists, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. McCann takes a reader inside the often marginalized culture in a way that his journalist character, who is seeking information on Zoli in the present day, never achieves.

After the Communists take over, the Romany enjoy a brief period of hope, thinking that the years of discrimination and repression are over. A Communist poet, Martin Stransky, discovers Zoli and seeks to turn her into the poster child for the new "literate proletariat."

"Look, everywhere else, they're the joke of the week. Thieves. Conmen. Just imagine if we can raise them up.... We – you, me, her – we can make a whole new art form, get those songs written down," he gushes to his assistant and translator, Stephan Swann, a half-Slovak expatriate from England. "She's a voice from the dust."

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