Colum McCann

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 30, 2007)

The year is barely two weeks old and I already have a favorite for 2007 -- the immensely talented Colum McCann's new novel, Zoli. More than four years ago, McCann came across Bury Me Standing a popular account of the Roma -- the Gypsies of Europe--by Isabel Fonseca. The account of real-life Polish-born Romani poet Papusza detailed in the book moved McCann so much that she formed the basis for his fictional protagonist, Zoli.

Read ExcerptZoli also functions as the narrator through most of the novel, relating her life’s story to her chonorroeja, her daughter, Francesca. Early on in the novel, when Zoli (given a boy’s name by her grandfather) is still very young, she learns that most of her family has been shepherded onto ice and killed by fascist Hlinka guards. Her grandfather brings her up and gives Zoli not only the gift of life but a lasting gift-- literacy that will later change her life in unforeseen ways.

As Zoli matures into a young woman, and one kind of terror is replaced with another as Czechoslovakia turns red, she is sought out by a young Englishman Stephen Swann. He encourages Zoli to not just sing but to use her pen and write poetry. “Her style was to quietly build layer upon layer until, by the end, the songs become sad and declamatory, tales of bitterness and treachery, the verses repeated over and over, like the falling and layering of so many leaves,“ McCann writes of Zoli‘s work. Before long, through the strength of her poetry, Zoli, to her dismay, becomes the poster child for the Communists who use her material as propaganda and worse, threaten the Gypsy way of life by stilling their movement forever. “They force us to be what they expect us to be,” Zoli says.

Attributing their new repressed way of life to Zoli‘s actions, the Romas ostracize her from the community and she has no choice but to move away. McCann brilliantly details Zoli’s forced wrenching from her past and her hesitant steps toward a future she cannot quite predict. “Borders, like hatred, are exaggerated precisely because otherwise they would cease to exist altogether,“ says Zoli as she journeys on to the West. Meanwhile Swann realizes that he “had interrupted her solitude to compensate for our own.“ But the damage is done and Zoli must live the painful life of an exile. Closure, if any, comes in small but endearing packages -- in the life Zoli builds with her Italian husband Enrico and in her relationship with her daughter Francesca.

McCann‘s precise prose is distilled to the finest turn of phrases. The book is worth the read just for the sheer beauty of the sentences -- they are poetic almost like Zoli's works. In his Salon essay, McCann has written about the plight of the Romani Gypsy, the racism they face even today and hopes for awareness about their cause. “A smidgen of sympathy is worth a ton of judgments,” he writes. “Literature has this capacity to move against the ambient noise of the day, and to change things for the better.” Zoli beautifully serves this purpose and more. In that sense, it is literature at its very best.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Zoli at

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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 01, 2003)

Having read and admired Colum McCann's earlier novel, This Side of Brightness, a powerfully imagined novel of homeless people and the bleak society they create in the subway tunnels of New York City, I approached this novel initially out of curiosity. McCann's writing style--very bold, masculine, urgent, and sometimes raw--was the perfect vehicle for that street-smart and inspired novel. I could not imagine an author with such a style succeeding in this novel, a fictionalized account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev and the rarefied world of ballet.

Dancer, however, affected me more profoundly than any other novel I have read in a long time. Vivid and hard-edged, it fuses fact and fiction seamlessly, successfully recreating the essence of a larger-than-life star like Nureyev and illuminating the many secret worlds he inhabited. At the same time, Dancer also manages to capture the heart, making an unlikable egomaniac into an understandable human and his rise to stardom a goal the reader both shares and celebrates.

As a five-year-old, Rudik first found his audience in a hospital in Ufa, where soldiers recuperating from wounds suffered during World War II delighted in his exuberant dancing. A former professional dancer soon became his mentor, and he began practicing every day, finding in the spirit of dance his escape from the hardships of poverty, the mockery of his classmates, and the resistance of his father to his artistic inclinations. His teacher Anna noted from the outset that he was "born within dance, [but] he was unlettered in it. Yet he knew it intimately, it was a grammar for him, deep and untutored."

His legs were the source of "more violence than grace," and there was "more intuition in him than intellect, more spirit than knowledge." In his first brief recital, he was filled with "kinetic fury," and even when he reached the height of his powers, when much of the world regarded his dance partnership with famed ballerina Margot Fonteyn as both intimate and elegant, his style was also described by others as "ferocious." Nureyev's "wild and feral" style of dance meshes perfectly with McCann's prose. Befitting the athleticism and drive of Nureyev, McCann's writing is bold and straightforward, characterized by short, powerful, descriptive sentences, often in a simple subject-verb-object pattern. Avoiding all frills and sentimentality, McCann favors strength over lyricism, and power over prettiness.

Through the first person observations of almost two dozen characters who touched Nureyev's life in some way, McCann shines light on Nureyev's personality and his development as a dancer. His family, his teachers, his acquaintances, his lovers, his employees, and even a schoolboy bully, a stilt-walker, and the captain of an airplane, who filed an "incident report" about his atrocious behavior aboard a plane, all comment on his actions and the choices he makes, personally and professionally. The deprivation and sadness experienced by most of these sensitive observers in their own lives contrasts vividly with the excesses and hedonism of Nureyev's adult life and illuminate, without need for authorial comment, his arrogance and boorishness. At the same time, however, these multiple viewpoints also humanize Nureyev in many ways by showing the extent to which these other characters are connected by love to others and to their history, while Nureyev becomes a "living myth…cared for and coddled and protected by the mythmakers, a life not lived with any reason in mind, just an obeyance to light, or the lack of it…needing constant motion."

Part III (of four parts) in this novel introduces Victor Pareci, Nureyev's only real friend, a character with whom Nureyev shares a flambuoyantly gay, often cocaine-enhanced social life and with whom he haunts the baths in New York City. Some readers may find the point of view, the language, and the graphic descriptions offensive, but McCann is presenting this star and his lifestyle as they really were, and he is too direct and uncompromising a writer to pull any punches here. The description of Victor's ostentatious walk through the neighborhood at the beginning of this section is one of the most intense and fully realized pieces of descriptive writing in the novel, a brilliant interlude and change of focus, which, though vulgar, perhaps, epitomizes Victor's attitude, complements that of Rudi, and ultimately makes the ending of the novel particularly poignant.

Filled with intriguing characters, ranging from simple Russian peasants to Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, John Lennon, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and the stars of ballet, the novel is a monument to the power of the creative spirit and a testament to the dangers inherent in a life from which all other controls have been removed. Rudi always "tore [a] role open, not so much by how he danced, but by the manner in which he presented himself, a sort of hunger turned human." McCann brings this voracious human to life. Nureyev leaps off these pages in a huge and stunning grand jete.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews

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About the Author:

Colum McCannColum 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. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014