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The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel
by Magdalena Zyzak

Overview -

A story of love and adventure in an imaginary Slavic nation on the brink of historic change--the debut of a ribald and raucous new literary voice

Set in the quaint (though admittedly backward) fictional nation of Scalvusia in 1939, "The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel" follows the exploits of a young swineherd with romantic delusions of grandeur.  Read more...


 
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More About The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak
 
 
 
Overview

A story of love and adventure in an imaginary Slavic nation on the brink of historic change--the debut of a ribald and raucous new literary voice

Set in the quaint (though admittedly backward) fictional nation of Scalvusia in 1939, "The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel" follows the exploits of a young swineherd with romantic delusions of grandeur. Desperate to attract the voluptuous Roosha, the Gypsy concubine of the local boot-and-shoe magnate, Barnabas and his short-legged steed Wilhelm get embroiled in a series of scandals and misadventures, as every attempt at wooing ends in catastrophe. After the mysterious death of an important figure in the community, a witch-hunt ensues, and a stranger falls from the sky. Barnabas begins to see the terrible tide of history turning in his beloved hometown. The wonderfully eccentric supporting cast includes a priest driven mad by a fig tree, a gang of louts who taunt our reluctant hero at every turn, and a dim-witted vagabond with a goat for a wife. Even as her characters brush up against one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century, Magdalena Zyzak's humor and prose delight in the absurdities of the human animal.

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780805095104
  • ISBN-10: 0805095101
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
  • Publish Date: January 2014
  • Page Count: 269


Related Categories

Books > Fiction > Literary

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-09-16
  • Reviewer: Staff

This first novel by a Polish-born writer now living in the U.S. is a wild, imaginative farce, a mix of folktale with magical realism, Dostoevsky conflated with Woody Allen, and it will infuriate as many readers as it delights. The Barnabas Pierkiel of the title is a farmer in the fictional Slavic country of Scalvusia in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. The narrator, “a self-effacing bureaucrat,” tells Pierkiel’s story and the story of Scalvusia—which failed to survive the war—in the form of a picaresque. The style is old-fashioned and formal, painted with a broad, almost surreal brush. Pierkiel is an antihero, an innocent, driven primarily by his daydreams and his lust for Roosha Papusha, a “gypsy” woman. He’s surrounded by an immense cast of characters, most of whom have narrowly defined roles (such as “Kumashko the priest” and “Daria the spinster”). Zyzak is a clever writer, but it’s hard to know what to make of the novel; it’s not dramatic in any classic sense, and it treads on the edge of being insulting (her villagers come off as stereotypically provincial proles; one popular pastime, apparently, is “ramming bottle caps into each other’s foreheads”). Perhaps the point is that no amount of knowingness or sophistication could prevent the destruction of Scalvusia, first by the Germans and then the Soviets, but there’s something frustrating about the farcical tone. (Jan.)

 
BookPage Reviews

Upon my Wilhelm, I ride

A good debut novel can deliver a compelling story, well-formed characters, interesting dialogue and a solid thematic punch—but a great debut novel also introduces an unforgettable voice. With The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, Magdalena Zyzak has done all of the above, creating a modern folktale that’s both delightfully strange and remarkably sensitive.

Zyzak’s titular hero is a simple swineherd in the fictional Eastern European nation of Scalvusia who, in his own mind, is a legend in the making. Barnabas finds his reflection so remarkable that it actually hurts to turn away from it. He finds the fact that he’s failed at every job he’s ever had to be proof not that he’s inept, but that his mind is filled with thoughts too lofty for manual labor. Most importantly, though, Barnabas is in love with the beautiful gypsy Roosha, who is unfortunately living in the home of one of the richest men in town.

Determined to win his beloved, Barnabas saddles his noble steed Wilhelm and sets off on a series of attempts at romance that never end well. Meanwhile he must deal with, among other things, a murder investigation, a mad priest, a man who married a goat and the looming specter of World War II.

Zyzak, who came to the U.S. from her native Poland to attend university in 2002, has a remarkable gift for prose. She regularly crafts phrases that feel simultaneously fresh and familiar—like her claim that Barnabas’ mother died of “acute incomprehension.” The story’s quirkiness is unapologetically front-and-center, but eccentricity is not Zyzak’s main goal. Instead, she makes us feel for this quixotic young adventurer and the community of oddballs around him.

With a fascinating blend of literary deftness and Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) zaniness, Zyzak has delivered an absurdist page-turner that’s also thoroughly human and moving.

 
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