The Integrity of the Gypsy People: Zoli by Colum McCann


I fell in love with Zoli, although, at times I thought she and the Gypsy people were too distant. I wanted to understand them better, to understand her better, but she was constantly moving: first with her grandfather as they traveled away from the site where her parents and siblings were brutally killed, and then, after being banished from her own people, she was constantly on the move.  But, even in the middle of those two points, the child and the outcast, there was a distance. Through her rise as a singer and poet at the hands of two white men, Stránsky and Swann, she managed to come and go. In the beginning, I felt like Stephen Swann, the translator/transcriber who falls in love with Zoli and eventually betrays her.  I too wanted Zoli to be a fixed point just for me. The point of Zoli, however, and the Gypsies, is the fluidity of her (and their) life. Zoli could not be caught in a net and set on display or tamed in order to adorn someone’s arm.  

As she states in her narration to her daughter:

“Things in life have no real beginning, though our stories about them always do” (220).

Zoli was all middle. Was all living.

I was angry with Stránsky and Swann, but I was more angry with Swann. They both wanted Zoli for a particular male purpose: to advance a movement and to have as a possession.  Perhaps that is why when Swann finally meets up with Zoli, after years, he can only think to ask if Zoli still had his father’s gold watch. Swann thought in terms of possession; Zoli knew nothing could be possessed, not even her identity. 

When Zoli was banished and walked from her home in Czechoslovakia to Austria and then to Italy, it felt a little like the film, Europa, Europa (1990). How much of life is forged from chance?  Zoli herself expresses awe at her surviving by “the merest luck” (202).

In the end, Zoli finds a love that stills her heart, but she never conforms to society. She maintains her integrity. And so it is for the Gypsy people as well; they too manage to preserve their integrity even under the societal pressure to integrate. The very pain written in each line of McCann’s novel is expressed by Zoli:

“The worst burden in life is what others know about us. But maybe there is a burden even worse than this. It happens when they don’t know about us, it is what they think about us when, in silence, they force us to be what they expect us to be” (248). 

I am still sitting with those lines and how certain cultures are made to fit our fantasies about them.

What would it be like for us if we allowed cultures to unfold and flourish even if we did not understand them? (I owe this thought to ALOK).  


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