The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel
By Magdalena Zyzak
269 pages, $25
Foreign Gods, Inc.
By Okey Ndibe
336 pages, $25
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Picking at the seam of the American dream has never seemed so widespread, with crimes, high and low, in the news. It’s the twin of another nasty activity mentioned in Frank Sinatra’s old song, “That’s Life”: “Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream, but I don’t let it get me down.”
It doesn’t seem to get writers Magdalena Zyzak of Poland and Okey Ndibe of Nigeria down either. Their work is influenced by a decline in culture both in America and elsewhere. Both take advantage of this deterioration; Zyzak by farce and Ndibe through reconciliation, to make their mark as litterateurs.
In so doing, “The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel” by Magdalena Zyzak and “Foreign Gods, Inc.” by Okey Ndibe test the breaking point of storytelling’s towlines, as they deal with the fractures of evil behavior and the healing power of redemption.
This persistent writerly effort from abroad is what Salman Rushdie baptized in his memorable essay, “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance”, “… as the entry of post-colonial writers into the Western Canon.”
Its latest incarnation is in the work of Magdalena Zyzak, a young woman born in 1983 in Zabrze, Poland, and living in the United States since 2002, who may reignite the passion for uncivil and at times bawdy Eastern European humor.
“The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel” has a double, perhaps triple identity: it’s a novel and a folktale with elements of being a ballad. It is written in English. Zyzak didn’t speak English until she was 17. Its chiseled locution reminds one of the triumph of Joseph Conrad, another Pole who wrote masterworks in his second language, English.
Whether “The Ballad” is such a magnum opus remains to be seen.
The storyline is this: Barnabas is a young man born in the tiny village of Odolechka, and living in the country of Scalvusia, in 1939. The country is a make-believe place that one can take to be Poland. He is anxious to attract Roosha, the Gypsy concubine of the local boot-and-shoe magnate. Barnabas has a short-legged horse, Wilhelm, and they get into plenty of scrapes together with Barnabas’ wooing ending up in misadventure and catastrophe.
Zyzak’s book is the latest rendering of an old genre. Think of the Irish-born English novelist Laurence Sterne’s picaresque “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” and you’ll get a picture of the randiness and low fun of this new ballad.
Alternately, the chapter headings remind one of English novelist Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “A History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.” The headings are explanations of what is to follow. For example, Chapter II’s title explains, “In which Barnabas serenades his beloved and finds consolation in an albino peacock.” Or, consider Chapter XIX, “In which two friends become friendlier in a shed.” By now you get the idea. One last offering, if that is the right word: Chapter XXX, “In which Barnabas encounters Satan.”
The Satan chapter begins this way: “Barnabas woke around dawn, and prepared to propose, his plan to court Roosha for four or five years obliterated by the night’s delectations.” When Barnabas looked for Roosha, she had disappeared with her sister, Tsura. He figured they must have gone to bathe in a nearby river. (Tsura didn’t bathe.)
Left for him was a small package on which was written the words, The Turlak. “Unwrapping this, he found a folded leaf in which was a dried muddy paste of what looked to be mushrooms and berries.” Breakfast – he wondered? It seems to have been a drug which made him very ill. So sick that he thought he heard Satan talking to him in German through the devil’s armpit. At the end of the chapter, the devil asks the whereabouts of Roosha, and Barnabas acknowledges that he doesn’t know, and ends up lying in a fetal curl.
In Zyzak’s novel, other forces than the devil are at work as well. They are the usual global suspects: capitalism, communism and fascism. These ponderous intellectual commodities are the backdrop of a humorous game of what she calls “the unexpected and predictable played in a backward village in a nonexistent nation.”
The author says, “Let’s be frank: My characters are idiots...” There is a darker context, she notes. “Nations, like people, tend to fall apart.”
When asked if she is flattered by people comparing her work to Dostoyevsky and Gogol, as well as to Monty Python and Mel Brooks, she replies, “Too many people write too many books. Does the book heap need one more?”
“Probably not,” she says, “but burn mine last.”
It’s not a great idea to pay too much attention to publisher’s screeds about books, but in this case, Soho Press has it right when it says: Foreign Gods, Inc. “… is a masterful novel that is at once a taut, literary thriller and an indictment of greed’s power to subsume all things, including the sacred.”
The author, Okey Ndibe, teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Born in Yola, Nigeria, in 1960, Ndibe relocated to the United States in 1988, and wrote “Arrows of Rain”, a well-received novel, in 2000.
At the beginning of “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” Ikechukwu (pronounced Ee-kay) Uzondu, the protagonist, has hit rock bottom. He is consumed with failure because of his gambling and excessive alcohol consumption. He has little control left over his life and not much more as a driver maneuvering his cab around New York City.
It’s been more than a decade since Ike Uzondu graduated from Amherst College magna cum laude, and, because of his accent, the best he can do is to drive a taxi. A manipulative American woman has taken him to the cleaners in a divorce, and he is at a crossroads in his life. In fact, he’s almost always at an intersection driving a cab in midtown.
What can Ike do? Can he pull himself back up from this downward spiral?
He reads in New York Magazine that an art dealer in New York City specializes in selling foreign deities – hence the title of the novel. This leads him to reflect on the effigy of Ngene, “the powerful war god that resides in his home village in Nigeria. “Such a powerful god of war would be worth a lot of money to one of Foreign Gods, Inc.’s wealthy clients,” he thinks.
From here the plot is straightforward, with a few surprises. Ike has to figure out a way to get back to Nigeria and steal the war god.
About this the author says,
“My novel attempts to look unflinchingly at some of the monsters that can be birthed when one such ‘ground-down’ man dares – through contemplation of an act of treachery – to become a master of his own fate. At the end of the day, my protagonist … is engaged in a drama of self-reclamation.”
After some heavy drinking, Ike returns to Utonki, Nigeria, on the trail of Ngene. Ike knows what he’s looking for. A book’s description of the physical appearance of the god given him by Dr. Okeke, a friend of his uncle, describes it thus:
“Once upon a time, Ngene was unrivaled in the lands of Olu and Igbo. Yet the deity’s appearance was unremarkable. Its carver seems to have set out to achieve an odd discrepancy between reputation and appearance. … Rising only to an average man’s thighs, the wooden statue is dominated by a stylized, androgynous figure delicately seated atop an orb.”
At this point Ike makes his move. How this all ends is the reader’s gambit. Hint: Ike is desperate to return Ngene to its African village after he has sold it.
Comparisons are made to Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, Achebe’s Okonkwo, from “Things Fall Apart,” or Rushdie’s Saladin Chamcha from “The Satanic Verses.” These assessments may seem a publisher’s reverie, or not.
What is clear is that, in fiction, picking at the seam of the American dream continues.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of international fiction.