January 2014

Upon my Wilhelm, I ride

By Magdalena Zyzak
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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.

Zyzak’s titular hero is a simple swineherd in the fictional Eastern European nation of Scalvusia who, in his own mind, is a legend in the making. Barnabas finds his reflection so remarkable that it actually hurts to turn away from it. He finds the fact that he’s failed at every job he’s ever had to be proof not that he’s inept, but that his mind is filled with thoughts too lofty for manual labor. Most importantly, though, Barnabas is in love with the beautiful gypsy Roosha, who is unfortunately living in the home of one of the richest men in town.

Determined to win his beloved, Barnabas saddles his noble steed Wilhelm and sets off on a series of attempts at romance that never end well. Meanwhile he must deal with, among other things, a murder investigation, a mad priest, a man who married a goat and the looming specter of World War II.

Zyzak, who came to the U.S. from her native Poland to attend university in 2002, has a remarkable gift for prose. She regularly crafts phrases that feel simultaneously fresh and familiar—like her claim that Barnabas’ mother died of “acute incomprehension.” The story’s quirkiness is unapologetically front-and-center, but eccentricity is not Zyzak’s main goal. Instead, she makes us feel for this quixotic young adventurer and the community of oddballs around him.

With a fascinating blend of literary deftness and Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) zaniness, Zyzak has delivered an absurdist page-turner that’s also thoroughly human and moving.

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