An Interview with Magdalena Zyzak,
author of The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel
Q. What inspired you to write The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel?
A. A quasi-uncle of mine once ate a rag. He genuinely consumed this object. He was drunk, and his wife was boiling it to clean it. One imagines he mistook it for soup. When this act was first reported to me as a child, I was impressed. Other hushed stories trickled in: about the uncle and his horse, the uncle and his shed, the uncle and his vodka... I’ve always had an interest in mockery. Sentimentality bores me and so does confessional self-righteousness. I was quite young when I began this novel and did not think myself a worthy subject of myth or mockery yet. I created a narrator, a Slavic, slightly modernized, slightly filthy version of the Victorian gentleman, who allowed me to construct a novel out of purely ludicrous material.
Q. The novel is set in the fictional Eastern European country of Scalvusia. Why did you decide to set your characters in this place versus an actual country, such as your native Poland?
A. Scalvusia is not Poland, although there’s Polish humor in the book. Poland has an old, established farming culture: from the early Polan tribes (in Polish, “Polanie” derives from the word “field”), through the landed gentry, on to communism. There was such a craze of rural kitsch during communism, such ridiculous glorification of the plow, of turnip digging, turning museums into potato storage, etc., that a certain wryness about things provincial carries forward to my generation. I know Polish “city people” who constantly joke about livestock, although they’ve only seen cows from a distance. It’s hardly meant as condescension. “The farmer” lurks in our cultural consciousness as an absurd propaganda construct with eerie consequences.
Q. Is Scalvusia based on your hometown of Zabrze, Poland?
A. Not at all. I was born in Zabrze but spent my youth in a neighboring town, Gliwice. This is in Silesia, in a mining district, very industrial, factory chimneys and communist apartment blocks. My father built a house in the countryside, in the mountains of Beskidy, where we spent weekends and where we eventually moved when I was twelve. The uncle lived out there. He still does. He’s eighty years old. He’s been eighty for years.
Q. Why did you choose to write this novel, your first, in English as opposed to your first language, Polish?
A. I first moved to America in 2002 to attend university. Not until after my arrival did I fully realize the significant disadvantage of writing/reading in a minor language. The majority of important books had been, for most of my life, available only in translation, as second-hand, mediated experiences. I began to see that I was only interested in writing from the bridge of the ship, and America, for better or worse, is such, at least for the Western world. Although The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is about a backward village in a nonexistent nation, it is still a stage on which three monstrous forces clash: capitalism, communism, and fascism. I think having written it in English in America (and, too, the role of English in the book) might keep it from feeling too regional. In short, urged by immigrant anxiety, I decided to undertake this extremely difficult, potentially disastrous task: to be a writer in a language I began to speak at seventeen.
Q. The prose is quite playful and comical, yet dark at the same time. How did you arrive at this voice?
A. There’s discipline in humor. Humor is a pattern game of the unexpected and predictable, of the mutation of the predictable into the unexpected and vice versa. Let’s be frank: My characters are idiots. Any serious notes are introduced by the narrator, a wry man upon whom little is lost, whose sense of history is beyond the confines of the village. Ultimately, of course, it is the war that thrusts the story into a darker context. Nations, like people, tend to fall apart. All literature, even humor, ought to be aware of entropy.
Q. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is something of a folktale. What inspired you to write the novel in this form?
A. I see it more as a subversion of the traditional folktale. There are folktale elements: a small village, archetypes for characters, a series of “mysterious” events. However, I was careful not to attribute anything in the story to magic. All “supernatural” events, such as Barnabas’s conversation with the devil’s armpit, have rational explanations that, though incomprehensible to the characters, a reader can discern. Folktales are often narratives that center on a minor action with an unexpected, often cataclysmic result. When Barnabas drops a handkerchief, it is a triggering element in a complex system that leads to the destruction of Odolechka.
Q. People are comparing your work to that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Gabriel García Márquez, and, in the same breath, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, and the Marx Brothers. What do you make of this?
A. Too many people write too many books. In an overproduction of culture, conflations are to be expected. Does the book heap need one more? Probably not, but burn mine last.