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The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel: A Novel Hardcover – January 14, 2014


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805095101
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805095104
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #581,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In her first novel, Polish American author Zyzak serenades her readers with the tale of Barnabas Pierkiel, a swineherd in the small village of Odolechka, located near the border of the fictional nation of Scalvusia. As the book opens, he is preoccupied with courting his one true love, a beautiful gypsy named Roosha, who lives as the kept mistress of a local factory owner. Scalvusia seems to lie somewhere between Germany and Russia, and in 1939, this location is politically problematic. Barnabas slowly becomes aware of this harsh fact as the novel unfolds, and his paramour’s background turns her into a target for persecution. After a well-respected member of the community dies and another villager turns traitor, Barnabas finds himself thrust into a situation which is simultaneously comic and chilling. Zyzak’s unique storytelling style evokes the timeless magic of a fairy tale, even as her colorful characters and eye for the absurd break that convention into distinctly modern pieces. --Amber Peckham

Review

“Inventive and funny…an unexpectedly moving account.”
The New York Times

“[A] twisted folktale… It's often said that during war nations descend into madness, but in Ms. Zyzak's entertaining novel madness is a preexisting condition.”
The Wall Street Journal

"A wickedly good debut…[It] shares a fleet-footed, darkly comic spirit with the works of Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, but its real affinities are much older: with the folk tales through which Europe's peasants for centuries expressed their blunt fatalism about political power and human nature…Zyzak's wicked wit expresses a matter-of-fact acceptance of the world as it is, rife with cruelty and suffering, but also with kindness, love and a lot of laughs…Mark Twain, for one, would have thoroughly enjoyed the all-too-human misadventures she describes."
— Los Angeles Times

"A novel about an Eastern European village straight in the Nazi’s path in the opening days of WWII gets an unlikely spin in Polish author Zyzak’s first novel: It’s a comedy — part Marx Brothers, part Warner Bros. cartoon."
The New York Post, required reading

"[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… reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and some of Shakespeare’s more delightful fools …[Zyzak’s]prose shakes and dusts off the language and reminds us of its familiar and forgotten delights."
--Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Make way for Magdalena Zyzak! She writes in a way uniquely her own and approaches the English language with the joy and reverence of her countryman Joseph Conrad. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is a heady drink."
–Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

"A rude, lewd, passionate and wildly funny modern folktale, reminiscent of Swift, Garcia-Marquez and Isaac Bashevis Singer.  The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is a stunning debut."
--T.C. Boyle

"Like the best folktales, Magdalena Zyzak’s debut has a rollicking wit and a strange melancholy undertow that pulls you into a dark and deeply imagined world."
--Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and The Dept. of Speculation

“An absurdist page-turner that’s also thoroughly human and moving…A good debut novel can deliver a compelling story, well-formed characters, interesting dialogue and a solid thematic punch—but a great debut novel also introduces an unforgettable voice. With The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, Magdalena Zyzak has done all of the above, creating a modern folktale that’s both delightfully strange and remarkably sensitive."
—BookPage

"In her first novel, Polish American author Zyzak serenades her readers with the tale of Barnabas Pierkiel… Zyzak’s unique storytelling style evokes the timeless magic of a fairy tale, even as her colorful characters and eye for the absurd break that convention into distinctly modern pieces."
Booklist

"The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel has a double, perhaps triple identity: it’s a novel and a folktale with elements of being a ballad... Its chiseled locution reminds one of the triumph of Joseph Conrad, another Pole who wrote masterworks in his second language, English."—Buffalo News

"The book starts with a dirty joke and ends with a bloody battle, and in between lies a great deal of carefully measured absurdist humor…a picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote, with shades of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Nikolai Gogol thrown in…. reads like a better-educated version of a Mel Brooks movie, complete with gypsy curses and Nazis."
Kirkus Review

"A wild, imaginative farce…Dostoevsky conflated with Woody Allen…It will infuriate as many readers as it delights."
-- Publishers Weekly

“The characters in Polish-born Zyzak’s first novel are innocent, racist, religiously pious, and practice infidelity; they’re all also one or more cards short of a full deck. The chaos that results is epic and entertaining.”—Library Journal


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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By xp on March 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Will anyone manage to publish a funnier work of serious fiction this year? I doubt it. I don't know how these Eastern Europeans learn English so completely that they can write dense, intense novels like this, but this novel, on the language level, approaches Nabokov and Conrad. On the humor level, funnier than Shteyngart, who apparently is a fan. I found this novel after reading a funny blurb she wrote on the back of another novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Albert Carfachs on March 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The hilarity in here is full-bore. It takes place in this backward town of Odolechka just before World War II, and the Germans are on the way. There is the mayor, the mayor’s wife, the town halfwit, the police chief, the priest, and a whole cast of nitwits. This reminds me of Catch 22, with so many characters, each fitting into a certain small comic role, like parts of a machine. You keep reading and thinking, well this is entertaining, and suddenly coming to a passage and remembering, oh right, this is a very serious work of literary fiction. I don't know how she walks that cliff edge, but she pulls it off. If I weren't an old, cranky louse, that is, if I had any friends, I'd encourage them to read this.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Christopher on March 24, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I don't know if the author took her inspiration from Volter's "Candide", from Jarry's "Ubu The King" or from closer to home - the absurdist comical works of the playwright and painter Stanislaw Witkacy, and Slawomir Mrozek. I'll leave the deliberation on that to the professors of literature, but the final result is a hoot, especially for people familiar with the culture, traditions, customs and history of Poland and Central Europe. I'd highly recommend it to all readers, especially the ones whose sense of humour is tickled by the absurdist satire written in a very funny flowery language, perfectly fitting the character of the novel. I enjoyed it immensly!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John Martin on February 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is Magdalena Zyzak’s first novel and is a valiant attempt to write a wildly funny modern folktale. The book does remind one of Tom Jones and even Stephanie Plum in its outrageous characters and situations. The problem is that the setting is so far removed from the experience of most readers that they will not get much of the humor.

The story is set in the fictional country of Scalvusia, which may be likened to Romania, and in the small town of Odolechkain in the year 1939. Our hero, Barnabas, is 17 years old, handsome and pleasant, but impoverished, his wealth being limited to an old horse and some pigs. Barnabas falls in love with the beautiful but haughty gypsy girl, Roosha Papusha. She, however lives relatively well off in a house owned by the town’s richest person, the haughty Karol Von Grushka. The town is also populated by a number of quint and iconoclastic characters including the Mayor, the Police Chief, Kumashko, a priest who kills himself, and Apollonia, the Mayor’s wife.

The humor springs out of every page and goes from bawdy to ridiculous and back again. The problem is that much of this humor is so culturally specific that the reader might not get it. For example on pp 63-64 Roosha defends her unwillingness to pay rent in the following dialogue:
“I take after my grandmother, Tschilaba. She was an unfortunate woman. As a child, she was accidently fed a spoonful of cursed moose’s milk. She never fully recovered. Then she pushed a bean into her nostril. She saw the best gypsy laryngologist in Sarajevo, but he couldn’t get it out. She spent her life suffering, the bean blooming in her nostril every spring. She was also buried twice, the poor bobochka. Luckily she had a rope tied to her toe.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
You never quite know where the story line is headed or if it will ever get there. She can be a bit long winded at times and uses some interesting language that you can get a little lost in. But each character is a perfect caricature of the type of people you would find in a small eastern European town. That part is done beautifully!
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