A swineherd dreams of romance and glory as he fumbles his way toward destiny on the eve of World War II.
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. For her debut novel, Polish-born indie screenwriter Zyzak (Redland, 2009) has fabricated an almost obsessive recreation of a picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote, with shades of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Nikolai Gogol thrown in. The author sets her little play in 1939 in a fictionalized Poland called Scalvusia, a country that no longer exists, centering on the small village of Odolechka. The story is told from the point of view of an anonymous villager remembering the events of that year, with its focus on a swineherd named Barnabas Pierkiel. The village is populated by a host of absurdist characters, including a mad priest, a bickering mayor and police chief, the mayor’s busybody wife, and Barnabas’ addled cousin Yurek. Young Barnabas has set his sights on lovely young gypsy Roosha Papusha, whom the swineherd hopes to steal from wealthy Karol von Grushka. If it sounds excessively stylized, it is, and the flowery prose that Zyzak applies to her fable may not be for everyone. Take a scene in which Barnabas has earned a moment of ministration from Roosha: “A strange sensation crashed over our hero like a blood-red wave full of water-logged trombones and broken short gourds (not quite translatable from Scalvusian, but one of my best turns of phrase, if the reader will go on trust), in which wave, he had to admit, there was something of the urgency of farmer Charek’s scrofulous krskopolje boar.” Like the novels on which it’s modeled, events play out in loosely connected episodes that fail to foreshadow the novel’s abrupt ending.
A faintly lewd farce that reads like a better-educated version of a Mel Brooks movie, complete with gypsy curses and Nazis.