We know Barnabas Pierkiel is our hero — because the narrator tells us as much. And why wouldn’t he be? A young swineherd much taken with his own reflection (which, because the family shard of mirror has gone missing, he must reflect upon in a pan of water) and as innocent of experience as he is full of romantic notions, Barnabas is a bright and sympathetic fellow by the standards of his village, Odolechka (the “Pearl of the Outer Wheat Belt”), in the vaguely Slavic state of Scalvusia. “A certain nimbleness of mind had allowed him to master the alphabet at the budding age of twelve,” while his schoolmates, who held his pigs against him, “remained distressed or unimpressed by language in general.”
In “The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel” by Magdalena Zyzak (Henry Holt, 288 pages, $25), Barnabas’ romantic longing is focused on a voluptuous young gypsy, Roosha Papusha, whose house he approaches on his trusty little horse, Wilhelm, “as confident as Saint George en route to the dragon,” only to end up in the mud or the bushes again and again, the Pierkiels being sadly subject to a “tradition of plummeting.” Which may be just as well, as the house Roosha inhabits with her sister, Tsura, is owned by the larger-than-life Karol von Grushka, whose mistress she is. And what a rival Von Grushka is — one of the men “who do not simply exist but who exude implicit challenge to the existence of other men, animals, even certain objects.” He also brings to Odolechka the first automobile any of the villagers have ever seen.
And yet, it is 1939. “Have not our neighbors the Czechs already fallen to the German machine?” the town’s firebrand, always orating, asks at one point. And history catches up with Odolechka in the end — as we might’ve seen coming when, upon the discovery of the hanged body of the priest, a town meeting is called, ostensibly to bring the murderers to justice, which quickly devolves into blaming the gypsies for everything from missing bricks to stolen gate wire to the peculiar behavior of a butchered chicken. There’s even, in the spirit of the pogrom, the poisoning-of-wells charge.
But for all its sober undercurrents, this is also a work intoxicated with language and reveling in storytelling of the goofiest and most venerable sort. There are shades of Don Quixote and Candide in our hero, and the characters who surround him converse and debate with a perfect logic of absurdity reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and some of Shakespeare’s more delightful fools. An escaped convict and an escaped madman (happily married to a nanny goat) haunt the tale. A corpulent police chief stands staunchly by the little mayor (prone to fainting), whose overbearing wife, Apollonia, finds the erotic in fascism. And the narrator, a supposed native of this supposedly now disappeared benighted country, is a pun-happy, digressive, self-reflexive, utterly charming raconteur — the creation of a writer born in Poland, whose English prose shakes and dusts off the language and reminds us of its familiar and forgotten delights.
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is at ellenakins.com.