In this fast paced, high stress, tech dominated world one can’t help but long for a simpler time. Luckily for us every couple of months another apocalypse-suffixed weather system ravages the country providing a nice respite from the mad pace of our lives. These brief incidents allow us to kindle again that dream of easier days, perhaps while stranded roadside in greater Atlanta, or huddled together with family members for warmth in the blackout regions of Delaware or Pennsylvania.
If you were lucky enough to secure a copy of Magdalena Zyzak’s delightful first novel, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, before society shut down, the long cold nights and frostbite were undoubtedly alleviated by this heartwarming tale.
In the fictional pre-war country of Scalvusia, it is indeed a simpler time. Society is more orderly, social hierarchy and authority are much easier to understand. Like a Slavic Lake Woebegone a bit of old world lore surrounds Odolechka and its various peasant stock citizenry. In this quaint village, a person’s worth is rightfully judged according to merit. Wealth is amassed in cows and pigs, a woman’s beauty rests with the sheer amount of moonshine or schnapps consumed in a single sitting, and a man can still make sweet love to his nanny goat.
But that’s not to say the backwater Odolechka lacks any of the higher order emotions or delicate sensibilities ascribed to culture. Enter the endearing protagonist and novel’s namesake, Barnabas Pierkiel. Educated to mastery of the alphabet by the alarmingly young age of 12 and nourished by the finest second rate Baltic paperback romance titles, young Baranabas sets his heart’s desire on the fiery tempered, sultry gypsy steam-pot Roosha.
Roosha is as aloof as she is beautiful, but more troublesome, she is the kept woman of Odolechka’s richest and most powerful citizen, Karl Von Grushka captain of industry, boot-and-shoe magnate. Despite her origins she is the most desirable woman in town, and despite her status with Von Grushka, Barnabas cannot help but follow the naïve romanticism of his quixotic ambition in courting her. While mildly annoyed, Rooshka doesn’t exactly refute Barnabas’s advances, which only encourages the boy in his fumbling romantic endeavors.
Narrated by a Soviet bureaucrat with a clandestine historical passion for his defunct homeland of Scalvusia, the novel’s farcical plot progresses serenely, often humorously along with each disastrous attempt by Barnabas to woo his love. The mysterious death of Odolechka’s drunken priest foreshadows tumult to come while instigating a witch hunt for the perpetrators.
In the highly superstitious, old world mode of groupthink the blame naturally falls against the town’s gypsy population. To further convolute the proceedings, it is summer 1939, and the appearance of a curious stranger with a German accent is mistakenly celebrated by the town’s inept mayor and chief of police.
History buffs will undoubtedly realize where The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is headed. Like most good books the story ends in fiery destruction. As a literary device this type of culmination is not only compelling, but fits nicely into the apocolyptic daydreaming of American culture at large.
However, as opposed to a fixation on the bloody end, the heroics and evil deeds of the various characters and their interactions, Zyzak makes the excellent decision to focus on the veritable calm before the storm. All the elements are lined up for a crescendo of Nazi blitzkrieg advance, but by extracting the miseries and brutalities of fascism’s total warfare the audience is only in essence witness to a literary train wreck. Other than shock value and emotional manipulation, this type of sadism often stamps a round character flat by robbing it of any inner impetus to action, relying instead on an external agency to motivate development. Zyzak was wise to avoid this.
Much like Nabokov before her, Zyzak’s effort in a second or perhaps third or fourth language results in a wonderfully delicious narrative. Her fanciful, continual play with language itself is a welcome departure from the often serious scope of the linear sequence, and the verbal acrobatics employed serve to prop up a sagging plot progression. Her cast of minor characters is enthralling, colorfully eccentric, and the main characters don’t indulge in the overly used cliché of parabolic hyperbole. Comparable to Steinbeck’s paisanos novellas, the minor characters are stifled by their own ignorance, it is an intellectual ignorance yes, but it is also an ignorance to the abject poverty and destitute nature of their existence.
For a first effort at long form, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is a wonderfully told, imaginative and quite humorous work. To accurately criticize the novel one gets the feeling that Zyzak wasn’t entirely sure of the direction she was headed while writing it. What begins in the histo-regional vein of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin ends up more of a Everything is Illuminated interpersonal dramady. The uncertain direction is forgivable in light of the pure pleasure of the language in reading, and the relative inexperience of the author.
For a nation that seems perpetually on the verge of splitting from within, being baked, blown over or frozen solid from without the finality of forced statism found in The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is comforting in the realization the stalemate of political trench warfare will pass, the weather will warm and soon enough, the sun will return. For those blistery nights of the present, bundle yourself up in something warm, nestle close to one you love and laugh along at the tragic humor of this intriguing first work.