It isn’t very often anymore that I can finish a book and truthfully say that it’s like little else I’ve ever read, but Gary Barwin’s debut novel, Yiddish for Pirates, manages exactly that.
Aaron – the 500 year old Jewish pirate parrot who narrates the novel – loves a bad joke, the kind that begins something like, “So a minister, an imam, and a rabbi walk into a bar…” We all know how the joke will end, even if we don’t know the punchline. We know that the gag will probably be as painful as it is funny, that the payoff will be a bit too true for comfort – the sort of joke that tries to laugh so it won’t need to cry.
The whole of Yiddish for Pirates feels a bit like this kind of joke, one that begins, “So this 500 year old Jewish pirate parrot decides to write a novel,” and the payoff doesn’t disappoint. The book isas full of humour and adventure as a reader could want, and this allows it to address things that would perhaps otherwise be too true for our comfort – persecution, loss, exile, memory, and so on. It deftly manages this mixture of humour and tragedy, moving between the two in ways that are both poignant and provoking.
For example (and sailor take warning – here be spoilers) Aaron arrives with Christopher Columbus in the new world and meets some almost too typical natives. He soon finds, however, that they are actually long lost friends, Jews who have mistakenly sailed across the Atlantic trying to escape persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. The exiled Jews had seen the Spanish ships approaching and impersonated natives in order not to be captured and returned to Spain. The punchline – ready for it? – is that Columbus decides he should take some natives back as presents for Queen Isabella, so two of the disguised Jews end up as captives anyway.
In scenes like these, Barwin wields his humour with a finely sharpened edge, opening wounds in the places we are most tender – religious persecution, racial bigotry, colonial exploitation – until we feel a little like the pirates of his story, missing eyes and limbs and even nipples. We come to recognize how disfigured we are by our histories, by our inquisitions and conquests and colonizations, by our loves and hatreds and other losses.
Wounded as Barwin’s characters are, they seek the fountain of youth as an almost religious talisman. They variously wonder whether it will give them immorality, return their bodies to wholeness, allow them the time to find lost loves – restore them to their unwounded selves, in other words, to the people they were before the brutal humour of the world left them disfigured. Even when everything increasingly fails them, they always choose to follow this faltering hope of the fountain of youth, and whatever happens to them (or to us) in the end, Barwin does not represent that hope as entirely vain.
After all, parrots don’t live to be 500 years old without a little help. Am I right?
Yiddish for Pirates will be released in April, 2016.