Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, by Magdalena Zyzak

Henry Holt, 2014 (January)
288 pp

arc -- my thanks to the publisher.

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel is one of those novels where I wasn't quite sure what I'd just read after I finished it.  I can absolutely guarantee that it's different from pretty much anything I've ever read. It took me a few days to think about it before even attempting to write anything, and only after I'd whirled it around in my head for a while did I come to appreciate this story. 

 The novel looks at the people and goings-on in an imaginary village in an imaginary European country, at a time when these people lived very simple but full lives.  Sadly, their rather carefree existence is about to bump up against modern history, beginning with the invasion of the Nazis.  The thing is though that Ms. Zyzak takes a different path than what you'd normally expect: she doesn't write about about how all of the villagers fared after the Nazis took over their homeland and the regime that followed which, in 1945 brought about the "country's final destruction;"   instead, she focuses on the last bastion of  simpler times. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, the "pigboy," is related by a "self-effacing bureaucrat" from this fictional country during the Communist era,  who'd traveled to the country, went through the archives, and interviewed "the survivors" to produce a work  that had been "copied out between the lines of a copy of "Concepts for Screw-Cutting Lathe Operators," and smuggled out of the country via a Polish friend.

Scalvusia is the name of this fictional country, a place where "the peaks on the eastern border were ... sleeping giant nights, said to rise to protect the people, were we ever in need," and where "for hundreds of years," the country "spread from the Black Sea to the Baltic."  The little village of Odolechka in the summer of 1939  is the scene of the action, and it is there that Barnabas Pierkiel, a young swineherd of 17, reader of such "national classics as The Eggcup of Countess Kurpuchnik,"  and a loner, falls for and pursues the gypsy girl Roosha Papusha.  She is already the mistress of Karl Von Grushka, whose family made a fortune in shoes and boots. He also has the only automobile in town, and Roosha is living in one of his homes.  Even though she's already spoken for, she doesn't exactly try to thwart Pierkiel's attentions, and the na├»ve boy continues to pursue her.  As he's involved in his quest, through which he must pass through several obstacles (none the least of which is the theft of a few gifts by an escaped inmate of a nearby asylum with his same last name),  the little village experiences a bit of upheaval: not long after a strange sermon by the local priest, he is found dead.  And within only a short amount of time, the blame settles on the gypsies after the overzealous, randy wife of the mayor has a talk with a man who turns out to be the escaped lunatic (who she sees as a reincarnation of Simeon the Holy Fool) who shows up wanting to marry his goat.

If that last sentence clues you in to the fact that there may be some absurdity going on in this book, you are right, in a way, but it's absurdity with a purpose. Or at least, this is my interpretation.  The author, I think, is trying to provide a look at the people living in Odalechka, perhaps representative of villagers throughout Europe, where they live traditional lives, share bawdy jokes, farm, go to church, and just generally lead simple lifestyles.  What is absurd will soon turn to the grotesque, however, with the coming of the Nazis and then eventually the Communists.  The turning point in this novel is the arrival by parachute of a German man, disguised as someone from the capital, who tries to gather as much info as he can, and who is helped somewhat by the bumbling mayor & police chief because of the language barrier.   We all know what comes next, but the author keeps things focused on the villagers and their uncomplicated, apolitical and much simpler way of living up until then.

Now here's the thing: I didn't get a lot of the humor, and the whole thing at first seemed wholly farcical to me, up until I got to the arrival of the German stranger, where the farce turned sort of sinister.   Then it sort of clicked, but it was really only after I'd finished the novel and spent time ruminating that I had my idea of what this book was about.   The point is, if you're not quite sure about what you're reading, don't give up! In the end, I decided that I liked this book -- different though it may be, there is a point to all of the silliness that goes on here.  My only niggle about this book is that while the author spends so much time on village life, the book seems to ramble for a while until it turns, and then it's pretty much over, so I wondered whether or not even she knew where she was taking this story.  But in the long run,  I ended up enjoying the book and would definitely try anything she writes in the future.

[this book has a new home!]

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