McCann traces the trajectory of a Gypsy poet’s exile.
Drawing on extensive research and visits to Romani settlements in Slovakia, McCann (Dancer, 2003, etc.) re-imagines the iconic Gypsy poet Papusza in the fictional guise of Zoli, whom we first meet at age six, fleeing with her grandfather, having narrowly escaped a Fascist pogrom in which their family and kumpanija (Gypsy band) died. Although reading and writing is forbidden for a Romani girl, Zoli learns in secret. Soon she is singing songs to her adopted kumpanija. The band survives WWII and is welcomed by the Slovakian Communist regime. At first, it appears that anti-Romani discrimination will end. Zoli is discovered by a poet, Stránský, and his English apprentice and translator, Swann, who edit a literary magazine and labor in a Bratislava printing plant. When they transcribe Zoli’s songs into poems and publish a chapbook, Zoli becomes a Socialist poster-poet, a sensation fêted on national tours. Tightly bound by her Romani roots, Zoli often retreats to her kumpanija’s encampment. When Swann follows her, they begin a clandestine affair, complicated by the Romani refusal to accept outsiders, or gadže). The regime changes and Stránský is tortured and shot. The government embarks on a campaign, called the Halt, of forced relocation of Gypsies to high-rise apartments. (To ensure cooperation, all their wagon wheels are burned.) Zoli’s popularity among gadže has incited distrust among her people. They blame her for the Halt, and administer the ultimate Gypsy punishment: She is declared unclean. The girl is subsequently banished and thereafter shunned by her people. She sneaks into Swann’s apartment and, in a gesture of despair and cynicism, steals his meager possessions. McCann artfully weaves Romani traditions, superstitions and expressions into a vibrant tableau, vividly rendering Zoli’s conflicting urges to flee and stay. After a tortuous journey, alone, on foot, across three countries, she is smuggled across the Alps into Italy, where she finally reconciles with her harshest persecutor, herself.