Few books begin with a line or paragraph that perfectly captures the essence of the entire story. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, by Magdalena Zyzak, is one of those few books. It begins with an ethnic joke, featuring a man who embodies the perceived stupidity of the fictitious Eastern European Scalvusian people. Narrated by an unnamed Scalvusian sometime after the war, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is the story of the people of the village of Odolechka in 1939. The eponymous Barnabas chases a Romani woman he loves while the mayor and police chief overeat; the mayor’s wife tries to improve herself through nutrition, religion, and fascism; a man tries to stir up a proletarian uprising with misremembered Marxist jargon; and an escaped insane man steals everything that isn’t nailed down. Then a German spy parachutes right into the middle of Odolechka.
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, though its crammed full of plot, is actually quite short. All of the action unfolds within a few days. Our narrator introduces us to Barnabas and briefly outlines Barnabas’s family’s history of unusual early deaths. Then we meet Roosha and see her dramatically rebuff the young man (Barnabas) she finds hiding in her garden. Just as we’re settling into what appears to be an off-kilter love story, the narrator pulls the rug out from under us to show us the other strange inhabitants of Odolechka and their detachment from the rest of the world.
All of this brings me back to the ethnic joke that kicks off the novel. If Scalvusia and its people had been real, this novel would be hugely offensive to some readers. It was pretty uncomfortable reading anyway. The people of Odolechka are so relentlessly stupid! On top of it, they believe they’re quite clever. While I did find the would-be revolutionary hilarious (because I love Communist jokes), I found it hard to laugh at the Odolechkans. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel reads like a mean-spirited Sholem Aleichem story.
When I read a book that I don’t quite like but am still interested in, I always end up flogging my brains to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from the story. I could see hints of historical allegory in The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel. The people carry on with their lives as best they can in mutual poverty until something goes wrong. When something goes wrong, they identify the outsiders and do something nasty and/or fatal to said outsiders. In the case of Barnabas Pierkiel, the outsiders are the two Romani women who live in Odolechka, just as Romani were (and are) outsiders throughout European history. Just when things get as bad as they can, fascists turn up in tanks and kill everyone. I’ve seen this story spun out before, so I ruled out the allegory as the message of the story. Besides, it doesn’t fit with the cruel mockery of the idiotic Odolechkans.
I can’t say that the lack of a message is, itself, a message—that’s too post structuralist for my taste. If a story doesn’t exist to purely entertain, it has to exist for a reason. I wasn’t all that entertained by The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, therefore…I’m chasing my intellectual tail at this point. I supposed I can sum up my experience of this novel by saying: at least I learned that I don’t like ethnic jokes, even when they’re about a people who never existed.