A Gypsy girl in Czechoslovakia is banished by her people after becoming a famous poet. Marienka Novotna, better known as Zoli, is a Gypsy girl born in the late 1920's in Czechoslovakia. She is 6 years old when her family is executed by Fascist soldiers. She escapes with her grandfather Stanislaus in their cart. Against Gypsy tradition, Stanislaus teaches Zoli to read and write.
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They meet up with another Gypsy encampment. Some of the Gypsies there come from Poland and play giant harps. Zoli has a good ear for words and music. With her best friend, Conka, they sing along when the women play.
With the coming of World War II, restrictions are placed on the actions and movements of the Gypsies. The group splits up. At fourteen Zoli is married off to Petr, an old man who plays the violin. She writes songs in Slovak. When their encampment is shot at by German planes, Stanislaus is killed.
After the war, Gypsy music becomes popular. Zoli writes down her songs and so becomes a poet.
Stephen Swann is born in England from an Irish mother and a Slovakian father. In 1948 he goes to Czechoslovakia as a translator for the poet Martin Stránsky, who prints a literary journal. In 1950 he meets Zoli at Stránsky's printing shop and falls in love with her. He is sent to record her songs on a tape recorder, so that they can be transcribed and printed. He visits the Gypsy encampment regularly.
After Zoli's husband Petr dies, she starts a relationship with Swann, but they have to keep it secret, since it is forbidden by Gypsy tradition. When a chapbook of her songs is published, she becomes famous and gives readings.
As Socialism grows, new laws are passed by the Soviet Union. Stránsky is executed. Zoli and Swann travel from town to town to plead against resettlement of the Gypsies, to no avail. Caravan wheels are burnt and tower blocks built to house the Gypsies. Zoli pleads with Swann not to print her full collection of poems, as the Gypsies will see it as betrayal of their culture, but he goes ahead.
The Gypsies banish Zoli. She disappears, but later returns to Bratislava. In Swann's apartment she burns all the tapes and original transcriptions of her poems. She takes his gold watch and sells it, then wanders off again. Eventually she crosses the border into Hungary and then into Austria through a lake.
She is found half-dead and taken to a hospital and from there to a refugee camp. Later she leaves the camp and heads west, walking and hitch-hiking. A young priest takes her to the Alpine village of Maria Luggua, where he pays Enrico, a taciturn smuggler, to take her across the border into Italy. They fall in love and Zoli stays in Italy. They have a daughter called Francesca.
In 2003, some years after Enrico's death, Zoli visits Francesca in Paris, where she is organizing an international conference about the Gypsies. Francesca pleads with Zoli to perform at the conference, but she refuses. Swann appears, accompanied by a journalist, but Zoli rushes off, still angry at his betrayal of her trust. Back in Francesca's apartment, one of the bands who played at the conference starts playing. After forty two years of silence, Zoli sings for them.
Best part of story, including ending:
It is extremely well written and captures the essence of the Gypsy woman's struggle with tradition and passion.
Best scene in story:
When Zoli briefly returns to Bratislava after being banished, she comes across her old childhood friend, Conka. Conka's children spit on her, because she is "polluted", but Conka cuts off one of the coins tied in her hair and gives it to Zoli.
Opinion about the main character:
I disliked the fact that Zoli could after all not escape her culture. She saw herself as polluted and turned her back on her poetry, because it was the cause of her becoming an outcast.