Russia's dark past - and its present

grim suburbs, TV vampires, Romanis

January 21, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to The Sun

House of Meetings

Martin Amis

Zoli

Colum McCann

Random House / 352 pages / $24.95

Colum McCann has a distinct flair for history and language which serve him well in his fourth novel, Zoli. The title character, a beautiful Gypsy poet (based loosely on the actual Romani poet Papsuza) who attains heroic status, symbolizes the persecution of her people (first by the fascists, then the Nazis, then by a Communist Romania that turns on its own). Zoli, urged to learn to read and write by her grandfather (Gypsy girls are forbidden literacy), achieves her fame when the Soviets take over. Her work is discovered by a Soviet poet, Stransky, who then has them transcribed into English by his Irish protege, Swann (who falls in love with Zoli). Zoli's songs and poetry bespeak the horrors of a non-Communist world and she becomes a celebrity - wooed and embraced by the Communist hierarchy even as she is shunned by the Gypsy elders for breaking the silence of their secret, interior culture, a silence which has protected them through so many persecutions. Wounded and chastised by the shunning, Zoli ceases to write. When fortunes shift, she falls from grace; shunned by her tribe and no longer beloved by the politicos, she flees, ending up in a refugee camp where she is befriended and saved by Enrico, an Italian who loves and marries her and provides her with a newfound trust in the world. The harshness and cruelty of the world in which Zoli the girl is raised, followed by her dizzying fame as a young woman and subsequent sudden dispossession, are artfully and achingly drawn.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, and her work is widely anthologized. Her most recent book is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920s-1940s." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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