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Reading Group Guide

1. Many Romani scholars have argued that the portrayal of Gypsy communities in the mainstream media is partly respon­sible for ongoing negative stereotypes. McCann opens the novel from the point-of-view of a journalist who seems to be sympathetic toward Zoli, but as the novel progresses the jour­nalists attitude seems to be benign but superficial. What does the journalist represent?

2. What do we, as readers, learn on a deeper, more substantial level about the life of the Roma from Zolis story?

3. Zolis story-even when raw and terribly sad-is told in smooth, bold, simple strokes, almost as if she is whispering in our ears. The Roma are known for having a predominantly oral culture. How much do you think that Zoli (and, by exten­sion, the author) value the art of intimate storytelling?

4. Zoli is asked by a little girl how she can be both “on” the radio and on the road at the same time. “But something lay be­hind it, Zoli knew, even then: both places at once, radio and road, impossible alongside the other” (p. 151). How can old tra­ditions survive in the modern world?

5. In the 1940s and 50s, Zoli becomes a poster girl for social­ism. But then the socialists try to put her and her whole culture in the “Gypsy jam jar” (p. 119). As a result, her own people blame her for what happens. Soon, she is betrayed on all sides. Is Zoli a prophet of sorts? Are prophets inevitably doomed to banishment?

6. Stephen Swann falls in love with Zoli. At times he believes that the love is fully requited, but is he just deluding himself? Is he a reliable narrator?

7. “We had interrupted her solitude in order to compensate for our own,” says Swann (p. 128). Why does Swann feel so lonely and outcast before Zolis banishment? Is he a forerunner of a certain type of international wanderer? Is he at heart, ironi­cally, what some people might have called a “gypsy”?

8. Is Zoli a poet or a singer? Or are they the same thing?

9. When McCann first embarked on this novel he says he knew “little or nothing” about the Romani culture. What was your own experience of the Gypsy way of life? Has it changed now after reading the novel?

10. Not the least of McCanns achievements is the realism of the voices of his characters. How does he achieve the verisimilitude?

11. “One always loves what is left behind,” says Zoli (p. 258). Is our view of Romani life solely based on some sentimental folk memory of something that does not exist anymore? Will ignorance prevent the embrace of true cultural diversity? Or will memory and/or poetry carry it through?

12. This epic story encompasses the twentieth centurys battles with fascism and communism and idealism. Yet it comes back to the fundamental search for home. How much do the politics of our times define where our true homes are?

13. The epigraph quotes Tahar Djaout: “If you keep quiet, you die. If you speak, you die. So speak and die.” How much faith or strength do you think Zoli would put in these words?

14. Zoli says “I still call myself black even though I have rolled around in flour” (p. 277). What do you understand her to mean by this?

15. Zoli triumphs in Paris. It is a small, personal triumph, a journey toward joy. Will that joy extend itself through the rest of her days? Do you think her poetry will now be rescued and sung by others? What happens to Zoli after the final page?

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Bella the Deacon, January 2, 2011 (view all comments by Bella the Deacon)
Zoli's quick-paced beautifully written story transported me into Roma culture across numerous decades in several countries: a captivating saga of a character to be long-remembered, respected, loved.
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kasvilar, April 8, 2010 (view all comments by kasvilar)
Colum McCann continues to blow my socks off and break my heart. He must be a man possessed to inhabit so many characters.
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Product Details

McCann, Colum
Random House Trade
Historical - General
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.15 x 0.8 in 0.6 lb

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Zoli Used Trade Paper
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Product details 368 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812973983 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Open Zoli to just about any page and you'll find a passage worth reading two or three times. The prose is gorgeous, the story remarkable -- characters practically leap out from the bindings. McCann's novel reminded me why I read fiction: to be transported, completely and without hesitation, into the lives of strangers. It belongs on a shelf alongside Michael Ondaatje's best work.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In his bittersweet fourth novel, McCann chronicles the imperiled world of the Slovakian Roma (Gypsies, to their enemies) from World War II through the establishment of the Communist bloc. After the pro-Nazi Hlinkas drown the rest of her family, six-year-old Zoli Novotna escapes with her grandfather to join another camp of Roma, where she discovers a gift for singing. At her grandfather's urging, she also breaks a Romani taboo and learns to read and write. She later becomes involved with poet Martin Strnsk, and her poems, which draw on her Roma heritage, are promoted by Martin as the harbinger of a 'literate proletariat' and a new Gypsy literature. Her growing fame, however, betrays her when the Communist government appropriates her work for its project to assimilate the Roma. Condemned by her own people and, as a Roma, alienated from the Slovaks, Zoli finds her way to a new home. The narrative switches between third- and first-person, though it is strongest when narrated by Zoli. McCann does a marvelous job of portraying a marginalized culture, and his world of caravans, music and family is rich with sensual detail." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "McCann artfully weaves Romani traditions, superstitions and expressions into a vibrant tableau, vividly rendering Zoli's conflicting urges to flee and stay....Mesmerizing."
"Review" by , "Yes, the new year's just beginning, but it's hard to imagine a better novel being published in the months to come than Zoli."
"Review" by , "McCann's lyrical fourth novel is as rich and sensuous and loamy as freshly turned soil....McCann's research and lustrous prose bring Zoli vibrantly alive. Grade: A-"
"Review" by , "McCann has an affinity for outcasts and the homeless, and the depiction of Zoli's journey through forests and farmlands toward the Austrian border is forceful."
"Review" by , "McCann vividly animates an insular culture different from our own. Full of dense descriptions of everything from the intricately carved caravans to the Gypsy women whose hair is sewn with gold coins, McCann tells a very convincing and very powerful story about the strength of community and the burden of exile."
"Review" by , "The way Zoli finally gets to Paris, and what she does once she reaches her goal give a lovely sweetness to the coda. And by that time both she and McCann have earned it."
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