"Things in life have no real beginning, though our stories about them always do," says Zoli Novotna as she recounts her days growing up as a Gypsy in Slovakia in the 1930s. Author Colum McCann perfectly captures Zoli's sense of nomadic life as she travels with her clan in their ornate caravans all over the countryside, every week a new place.
Wearing the ritual of gold coins in their hair and purposely keeping their older customs alive with their modesty laws, whispered names, and their runic signs, the gypsies make a living for themselves across the land, existing almost entirely for music.
Zoli's childhood is indeed happy for the most part, and she finds pleasure in singing their songs that "shift, and roll and change." Yet the gypsies have been suffering at the foot of the fascists, seen by them no more than wild animals, even by the Hlinkas who
are just like the Gestapo.
When Zoli becomes a woman, she meets the famed Slovak poet Martin Stransky, who takes her on as his muse and promotes her singing, convincing her to write her songs down.
She indeed becomes something of a superstar in this country that she so loves.
Zoli is also in the blossom of youth when she meets Stephen Swann, an Englishman who has come to Czechoslovakia to work as a translator for Stransky, fired up by the thought of revolution. Zoli and Stephen begin an affair, both sustained by the sense that they are "stepping back into what we all once believed: revolution, equality, and poetry."
Zoli eventually becomes a shining example of this new "literary proletariat" with their revolutionary right to reclaim the written word. But disillusionment soon sets in at the inevitable bleakness and inflexibility of the communist regime, with the country eventually turning sour and losing its edge: "Our cures were so much less powerful than our wounds."
Zoli's songs gradually become sad and declamatory, tales of bitterness and treachery with verses repeated over and over "like the falling and layering of so many leaves." With great insight, McCann charts this transformation of a nation and also of Zoli's itinerancy, emphasizing the tragedy of her people.
It is impossible to imagine more frightening circumstances than those that Zoli must endure as she walks in the wet winter fields, cast off from everything, her heart broken by the people around her.
And it is devastating to read of her group becoming the unsuspecting victims of the grand experiment of a government that thinks it knows best with its Law of 74, the Big Halt, "forty thousand people lumped into one in gigantic tower bocks with running water, electric switches, and heating…"
Throughout the course of the story, Zoli learns some hard truths: that none of the old rules and the old taboos apply. She is indeed in love with that "bare life."
It was what she knew, and it eventually fuels her decisions.
Yet hers is also a fragile existence where nothing is ever fully understood, where her memories have a heavy backspin, and where her recollections become almost like "voices from the dust," heartbreaking and ultimately tragic.