Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/4/2016 (446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ahoy, mateys! If a poet’s picaresque piques your passions and you fancy a farkakteh feast of language with enough pomo/poco side dishes to fill your kishkas, weigh anchor and set your compass bearing to Gary Barwin’s first novel.
Published in the 20th anniversary year of Random House’s New Face of Fiction program, Yiddish for Pirates is part historical adventure novel, part long-form prose poem and part standup comedy routine.
It’s the story of Moishe, a bar mitzvah boy turned pirate captain, and his friend and confidant Aaron, a multilingual parrot, who witness the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the 1492 expulsion of Jews from newly unified Spain and the genocidal treatment of the Tainos of the Caribbean following the arrival of Columbus.
The novel is narrated by Aaron in the 21st century after the parrot has been touched by the time-defying waters of the Fountain of Youth, the object of a quest by Moishe and his crew of Jewish pirates.
Though a parrot, Aaron is also something of a magpie. He fills his narrative with literary jewels gathered from across time and around the world, including re-purposed lines from Leonard Cohen and Woody Allen, old Borscht Belt jokes, Shakespearean references, a plot twist taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and a meeting between Moishe and the Spanish inquisitor Torquemada inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov.
The story is a dizzying series of captures, escapes, sea battles, atrocities, chance encounters and historical cameos. While it adds up to a fun, rollicking good read in places and a celebration of linguistic invention throughout, it’s definitely not for everyone.
The 500-something-year-old parrot speaks in voice that is simultaneously comic, learned and demotic, but can at times be as grating on the ears as that of an actual parrot.
Passages may either shift the reader into quick-scan mode or prompt a trip to an online Yiddish-English dictionary, such as when describing a couple making love aboard a sailing ship: "The ship swayed on the waves and Moishe and Yahima played tsung in tsingl, the uvulations of tongues like the shmeckel-in-knish gyrations down below."
At other times, Barwin uses the poet’s toolbox of internal rhymes, alliteration and rhythm to create sentences of prose with a breathtaking musicality to them: "Our quick ship rippled and shuddered in the thrill of the wind as we approached the island from the south and were soon sailing upon the cyan-blue skirts of its white sand shores."
Barwin demonstrates a fondness for puns throughout. Sailors set out to make chopped liver of attacking buccaneers but end up "writhing upon the deck, soon to become livers no more." Old salts beginning a new sea voyage are described as "mariners returned to marinating." A bosun on Moishe’s ship is given the neither Spanish- nor Jewish-sounding name Higgs, just so Barwin can make a physics joke.
The joking, self-aware narrative style keeps the reader at an emotional distance from the story, even when it describes the horrors and heartbreak of Moishe’s life.
The climax feels muted; it’s not the final revelation in the quest that matters in the novel so much as the dozens of twists along the way. As Aaron says, the big question of all stories is "And then what happened?"
With its mixture of pieces of eight and fool’s gold, Yiddish for Pirates is a treasure hunt of a novel, in which the map is more valuable than the hidden chest and the searching is more important than the finding.
Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg novelist.