Magdalena Zyzak's delightful first novel, "The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel," has no noble characters, a good deal of mean-spirited behavior, and it all ends badly — in other words, it's a comedy. For those who think that religious fanaticism, racial hatred and Nazis are not fit subjects for humor, Zyzak mounts a spirited defense.
"Prejudices and stupidities … in any time, in any people, serve as worthy targets for a bit of mockery," she writes. "This may be considered, in its modest way, a document of protest, as lightheartedness has become rather rare in this part of the world."
Framed as a dissident manuscript smuggled out of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, the novel 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.
The little village of Odolechka in the mythical nation of Scalvusia hasn't changed much since it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, except that now, in the summer of 1939, it's a shaky democracy whose authorities actually consult the peasants on occasion — albeit only when they don't want to take responsibility for discreditable decisions.
Otherwise, life goes on pretty much as it always has: The village priest, Kumashko, is a drunk (so is almost everyone else); the police chief is fat and lazy; the richest man in town is so used to dominating his surroundings that he doesn't even notice when he knocks over Zyzak's pig-herding hero, the eponymous Barnabas Pierkiel, as he rushes toward the gypsy they both love.
Barnabas is a sweet, sensitive 17-year-old, possessed of "a certain nimbleness of mind [that] allowed him to master the alphabet at the budding age of twelve." The object of his adoration is Roosha Papusha, who came to town three years earlier with a gypsy caravan and stayed on after it left. Their introduction isn't the most romantic — she finds Barnabas on his belly in the mud, spying on her in her garden (though he claims to be performing "men's gymnastics") — but Roosha grows rather fond of "pigboy," as she calls him.
Barnabas is her most fervent defender when the mayor's nasty wife, Apollonia, incites the villagers against Roosha and her sister Tsura. She claims that these "Devil-worshipping witches" killed their priest after he delivered a fiery sermon (punctuated by swigs from the communion wine) urging Odolechkans to mend their self-indulgent ways.
In fact, Kumashko committed suicide, driven mad by his torment over a fig tree Jesus killed in the Gospel of St. Mark. (This is a sly poke at the God-is-dead soliloquizing of Russian novelists whose high-mindedness Zyzak's earthy characters have no use for.)
Apollonia, who embodies a particularly toxic mix of religious sanctimony and sexual hypocrisy, gets a new mentor when a Nazi officer (who goes by the fake name Boguswav Bobek) parachutes into Odolechka and introduces her to the notion of racial purity. Bobek is as idiotic as the pseudonym he chooses, but the villagers assume that his peculiar ideas and habit of using German words are to be expected from the representative of the Scalvusian government he claims to be.
With Bobek's arrival, the narrator tells us, "we plunge into a rather darker point of view than this innocent history has yet contained." It's not such a radical change, really, in a book that can provoke hilarity with a list of the disasters that have befallen the Pierkiel clan "since the Late Middle Ages" — plague, lightning strikes and "limbs [that] had a tendency to abandon their owners," to name only a few.
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. This perspective comes more naturally, perhaps, to the history-burdened inhabitants of the author's native Poland than to the citizens of her adopted homeland, the U.S. We Americans, after all, are often an earnest lot. But Mark Twain, for one, would have thoroughly enjoyed the all-too-human misadventures she describes.
Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel
Henry Holt: 288 pp., $25