‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ by Magdalena Zyzak (2014) – 269 pages
Here we have a ribald comic folk tale from the imaginary Slavic nation of Scalvusia about young pig farmer Barnabas Pierkiel and his quest for the beautiful gypsy Roosha Papusha. He first encounters Roosha in her garden bending over as she pulls out weeds, and “his beloved’s buttocks glared at him through a cloche of heaped skirts.”
What is special about ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ is that it is written in the fashion of those wonderful novels from the 17th and 18th centuries such as ‘Tristam Shandy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Candide’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Each chapter has a subtitle such as ‘In which two friends become friendlier in a shed’ or ‘In which Apollonia divulges her secret’. My favorite chapter subtitle is ‘In which too much transpires to be summed up’.
To have a modern novel written in this old manner is a delight. It has been so long since a modern novel has been written in this classic style that it comes across as new and different and unique. Magdalena also pulls off the archaic language and the bizarre plot of a twisted folktale well.
This absurd bawdy farce takes place in this backward town of Odolechka just before World War II, and the Germans are on the verge of invading. We meet the mayor, the mayor’s wife, the police chief, the priest, as well as many others. All are town characters in one way or another.
The distinctive classical style and Magdalena Zyzak’s wicked sense of humor make this novel great fun at first. Zyzak has pulled this madcap folk comedy off for about 150 pages. However the novel is 269 pages long. It loses some of its comic energy during the last half. Too many characters from the town are introduced, and many are not defined sharply or rudely enough to be funny. This is broad humor, and it probably could have been limited to 10 or 12 well-defined characters.
Despite not being entirely satisfied with ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’, I believe that Magdalena Zyzak is a novelist to watch in the future. It is her willingness and ability to attempt something different from the crowd that makes her fascinating.