Ashes of history: colum mccann’s zoli

Eluned Summers-Brenner


My essay reads Colum McCann’s novel Zoli as an elaboration of the ethical work of poetry. In the novel the Slovakian poet Zoli Novotna, based on the life and work of the Polish Romani balladeer Papusza (Bronislawa Wajs), is irreversibly disowned by her people upon publishing poetry that is used, as is her image, to represent the enaction of Law 74, or the Big Halt, in the 1950s and 1960s. Disastrously, this process caused Eastern European Gypsies to lose their sense of belonging and livelihood through the confiscation of caravans, their being forced into apartment blocks in towns, and consequent opposition to traditional Gypsy skills, most of which were lost. McCann’s novel extends Papusza’s story beyond her exclusion from her people, having Zoli bear performative witness to the mistaken work her poetry once did. In walking roads from which Roma have been banished, and in taking on the bare remains of her lost identity, a mishmash of gadzi perceptions, Zoli makes the nothingness for which she stands into the means of travel and future hope for others. In my reading, the novel elaborates a claim that justice is not served by forcing everyone to have the same degree and kind of pleasures, but by allowing forms of chosen deprivation. The ashes of Zoli’s burned poems become the ashes of a reconstituted identity around a space that holds nothing, equivalent to the nothing that gadzos are willing to know about Romani world-making and belonging, and with which Zoli has become unwittingly, yet not, as the novel shows, unredemptively, involved.


Romani poetry; Poetry and ethics; Literature and identity


Copyright (c) 2008 Eluned Summers-Brenner

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