He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.
In the far corner of the room he notices two women watching him, wide-eyed. A hand pushes him at the small of his back. “I’ll wait for you here, mister,” says Robo, and the door creaks behind him.
He looks around the room, the immaculate floor, the ordered cupboards, the whiteness of the one shirt hanging on a nail from the ceiling.
“Nice house,” he says, and knows immediately how foolish it sounds. He flushes red-cheeked, then draws himself tall. In the corner sits a broad-shouldered man, tough, hard-jawed, gray hair tousled after a bad night’s sleep. He steps across and announces quite softly that he’s a journalist, he’s here on a story, he’d like to talk to some of the old folk.
“We’re the old folk,” says the man.
“Right,” he says, and pats his jacket. He fumbles in his pocket and breaks open a pack of Marlboros. Stupid, he knows, not to have broken the seal already. In the silence the others watch him. His hands shake. A bead of sweat runs down his brow. He can almost hear the chest hair rustle under his shirt. He unwinds the plastic, lifts the cellophane, and shoves three cigarettes up like peeping toms.
“Just want to talk,” he says.
The man waits for a light, blows the smoke sideways.
“The old days.”
“Yesterday was long,” says the man with a laugh, and the laughter ripples around the room, tentatively at first, until the women catch it and it builds, unraveling the tension. He is suddenly slapped on the shoulder and his grin breaks wide, and the men start to talk in an accent that starts low and ends high, musical, fast, jangly. Some of the words appear to be in Romani, and from what he can make out, the man’s name is Boshor. He reaches past Boshor, throws the cigarettes on the table, and the men casually reach for them. The women step across, one of them suddenly young and beautiful. She bends for a light, and he looks away from the low swing of her breasts. Boshor points to the cards and says: “We’re playing for a little food, a little drink too.” The man pulls again on the cigarette. “We’re not really drinkers, though.”
He takes his cue from Boshor, opens a button, slips back his shirtfront, exposing his flabby chest, and removes the first bottle like a trophy. Boshor picks up the bottle, turns it in his hands, nods approval, and rattles off a salvo of Romani to more laughter.
He watches as the young girl reaches into a cupboard. She takes down a mahogany box with a silver clasp, opens it wide. A matching set of china cups. She puts them on the table, unscrews the bottle. He is given, he notices, the only china cup that is not chipped.
Boshor leans back and gently says: “Health.”
They clink cups, and Boshor leans forward to whisper: “Oh, it’s for money too, friend. We’re playing cards for money.”
He doesn’t even flinch; he slaps down two hundred krowns. Boshor takes it, slips it into his trousers, smiles, blows smoke towards the ceiling.
“Thank you, friend.”
The cards are put aside, and the drinking starts in earnest. He is amazed how close Boshor sits to him, their knees touching, the dark of the hand on his jacketsleeve, and he wonders now how he will navigate their secrets—even their Slovak is a little difficult to understand, their country dialect—but soon enough the second bottle is on the table. He does it calmly and quickly, as if to suggest it’s always been there. The drinking unfolds, and they begin to talk to him about crooked mayors and bent bureaucrats and subsidies and the dole, and how Kolya was beaten with a pickaxe last week and how they are not allowed into the pubs—“We’re not even allowed within fifty fucking meters”—all the things they know a journalist wants to hear. Even the Gypsies have soundbites, he thinks, as if he should be surprised, all the words down pat—racism, integration, schooling, Roma rights, discrimination—and it’s all horseshit really, though he’s getting somewhere; they become more talkative as the bottles drain, the voices rise to a clamor, and they fall into a story about a motorbike taken by the cops.
“Everything that gets stolen is what we steal,” says Boshor as he leans forward, his eyes slightly bloodshot and tinged with yellow. “It’s always us, isn’t it? We’re prouder than that, you know.”
He nods at Boshor, shifts in his chair, seeks a pocket of silence, passes around more cigarettes, and flicks the matchstick to extinguish the flame.
“So,” he says, “are motorbikes the new Roma horses?”
He’s briefly proud of his question until Boshor repeats it, not once, but twice, and then there’s a giggle from the youngest girl and the men slap their thighs in laughter.
“Shit, friend,” says Boshor. “We don’t even have bridles anymore.”
Another round of laughter goes up, but he pushes his question harder, saying surely horses are part of the ancient Gypsy ways. “Y’know,” he says, “pride, tradition, heritage, that sort of thing?”
Boshor’s chair scrapes against the floor and he leans forward. “I told you, friend, we don’t have any horses.”
“It was better under the Communists,” says Boshor, flicking ash towards the doorway. “Those were the days.”
And that’s where his heart surges, he’s momentarily high on the lift of it, and just by leaning forward, ever so slightly, he has Boshor by the neck-scruff, a newsman’s trick.
“Yeah, back with the Communists we had jobs, we had houses, we had food,” says Boshor. “They didn’t knock us ’round, no, friend, may my black heart stop beating if I tell a lie.”
“Is that so?”
Boshor nods, and from a battered wallet takes out a photograph of a traveling kumpanija long ago in which the men are elegant and the women long-skirted. They are out on a country road, and a red flag with a hammer and sickle flutters from the caravan roof.
“That’s my Uncle Jozef.”
He takes the photo from Boshor, turns it in his fingers, and wishes to Christ in the clouds above that he had clicked his tape recorder on, for now it has begun, but he wonders how he will reach into his pocket without attracting too much attention, if the small red light will shine through his jacket, and where he should begin his real questions. He wants to say that he is here about Zoli, do you know about Zoli, she was born near here, a Gypsy, a poet, a singer, a Communist too, a Party member, she traveled with harpists once, she was expelled, have you heard her name, did you hear her music, We sing to sweeten the dead grass, did you see her, is she still talked of, From what is broken, what is cracked, I make what is required, was she damned, was she forgiven, did she leave any sign, I will not, no, never call the crooked finger straight, did your fathers tell stories, did your mothers sing her songs, was she ever allowed back?
But when he mentions her name—leaning forward to say, “Have you ever heard of Zoli Novotna?”—the air stalls, the drinking stops, the cigarettes are held at mouth-level, and a silence descends.
Boshor looks towards the doorway and says: “No, I don’t know that name—do you understand me, fat-neck?—and even if I did, that’s not something we would talk about.”
Excerpted from Zoli by Colum McCann Copyright © 2007 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature.
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Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann.
But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.
Colum McCann, acclaimed author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness, has created a sensuous novel about exile, belonging and survival, based loosely on the true story of the Romani poet Papsuza. It spans the twentieth century and travels the breadth of Europe. In the tradition of Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Ondaatje, McCann finds the art inherent in social and political history, while vividly depicting how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs.
Colum McCann was born (1965) and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He has lived in the United States on and off and has seen much of America. For two years, he biked around the country and has gotten to American by working as a taxi driver, a motel worker, a ranch hand, a bike mechanic, a bartender, a ditch digger, a house painter, and a wilderness guide, among other jobs.
He is also a journalist who has written for various newspapers, including the Herald, Evening Press, and Connaught Telegraph, in Ireland, and for United Press International in New York City as well as being a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and GQ.
He has won and been nominated for several awards for his work including the Hennessy Irish Literary Award, the Irish Arts Council Bursary and the Rooney Award for Irish Literature, as well as the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize in Britain. He has also received a Pushcart Prize, been an IMPAC finalist, and was named the first winner of the Grace Kelly Memorial Foundation Award.
He and wife and his young daughter live in New York City.