Yiddish for Pirates
Random House Canada, 2016
For someone who considers herself at least somewhat versed in the Canadian writing and arts scene, I am mystified as to how it could be that I had not previously known of Gary Barwin. A veritable polyglottal polymath, both a poet and a one-man band, an uber-menschian everyman, his curriculum vitae includes a PhD in music composition, other and various degrees in education, creative writing, English and the fine arts, a command of at least three languages, multi-level teaching experience, including work with at-risk street youth, and writer-in-residencies at Western University and the London Public Library. In his spare time, it seems, he freelances as a writer and editor, creative writing workshop leader, and music and literary festival performer. Described elsewhere as a “multifarious experimental scribe and noted small-press denizen,” he is also a writer of critically recognized children’s books and volumes of poetry.
The central premise of this, his latest oeuvre — that a 500-year-old, multilingual parrot, who may or may not have been splashed by the eternal-life-giving waters of the fountain of youth, has deigned to entertain you with the tale of his most significant other, Moishe, (an expatriate Lithuanian Jew, turned pirate, on the run from the Spanish Inquisition) and their riotous adventures plying the Ocean Sea and beyond — may or may not intrigue you, depending on your relationship with the rational. I have chosen to be charmed. To be more precise, I had no choice.
There’s no greater ache than an untold story…
If, as Aaron the parrot (apparently versed in Angelou) opines, “there’s no greater ache than an untold story,” then he must have been one sore bird. The adventures of pirate and parrot that spill from his articulate beak are almost endless and endlessly varied. In fact, the word “story”cannot quite contain the contents of the book — imagine that proverbial sack of weasels with the word “STORY” imprinted across its front. Now add the cartoon action — frantic squirms and wiggles and bulges and shrieks, the occasional tooth or claw piercing the fabric. Now you have some idea of the relationship between this Barwin opus and the general idea of “a story.”
But, to begin at the beginning;
Fin-de-siecle Europe (fin de 15th siecle, to be precise) was a dangerous, turbulent time, particularly if you were Jewish or a resident of what was about to be labelled the new world. The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, and the murderous and acquisitive Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were busy expanding their horizons in search of new lands to plunder whilst, simultaneously, aided by the insane Torquemada, inquiring into the religious sensibilities of their subjects. Those deemed insufficiently christian were purged in ways that seem, in hindsight, even considering the tenor of the times, remarkably unchristian.
Those alert to such details will immediately note the enchanted quality of Moishe’s beginnings — a hint, perhaps, of his destiny. Raped in the midst of a pogrom, his young mother died shortly after childbirth, the baby thrown into a river, only to be rescued by a young Jewess. Named “Moishe,” or “Moses” meaning “he who is drawn from water,” the biblical parallels for his beginnings are obvious. And, indeed, many of his early adventures involve him pushing, pulling, and floating his people towards a promised land. With a head full of ideas too big for his tiny shtetl in Vilnius, Lithuania, the fourteen-year-old Moishe runs away with dreams of exploring the world, taking with him only a few necessities, two silver coins, and a mysterious book he found hidden in his parents’ bedroom. Finding work on a ship sailing to Portugal, Moishe meets his lifetime companion and voice, a multilingual African grey parrot he names Aaron (biblically, the brother of Moses, and his spokesperson, or in this case, spokesbird). Initially handicapped by his limited ability with language (basic Yiddish only) Moishe is, early on in their adventures in Portugal and Spain, entirely dependent on Aaron, whose excellent command of both Yiddish and Spanish allows them safe passage through many tricky situations in which it was best not to be identified as Jewish. In this way, Aaron does speak for Moishe, as he does again when he tells us his story.
Moishe’s wanderlust has led him, somewhat inadvertently, into perhaps the most dangerous situation he might find himself at the time — a young, unprotected Jewish boy, wandering through Spain and Portugal at the height of the Inquisition’s insanity. He quickly becomes embroiled in an effort to save a small band of Jews and their precious, ancient books, in the process falling in life-long love with Sarah, one member of this band. Betrayed by his ship’s captain, witness to the grisly extremes of the Inquisition, cruelly separated from his newfound love, a victim of theft and of violence, Moishe, the little dreamer, is soon taught a thing or two about pain, grief, power and human nature by the world he had been so anxious to explore.
During one of their many and varied adventures at sea, Moishe and Aaron cross paths with Christopher Columbus, here a bumbling quixotic character who wafts in and out of the story from this point on, and, ultimately, is responsible for Moishe and Aaron’s further adventures in the New World, as they accompany him on his quest, in 1492, to find a westerly sea route to China. Unimpressed, as a result of his experiences, with the “civilized,” world, Moishe, is, very soon, disabused of the notion that goodness might be a matter of geography, or that he can leave greed, cruelty, and injustice behind in the old world. Appalled by atrocities committed by the Spanish against the native Bahamian population, and hopelessly separated from his one true love, he rejects civilization outright, and becomes a pirate.
Moishe and Aaron’s final great adventure begins when Moishe decides that, since they are in the neighbourhood anyway, they should try to locate the fabled fountain of youth. Success in this venture, it seems, requires the acquisition of five secret and mysterious books, allusions to which have popped up throughout the story, and much convoluted adventuring results from the attempt to do so. Are they successful? I won’t give it away, but some insight may be gained from the fact that Aaron, self-proclaimed inseparable companion to Moishe, is left, five hundred years later, to tell the story.
Considering the most enticing topics for discussion in a review of this book, one is confounded by an embarrassment of riches — the wondrous verve and exuberance of the language, the many and varied literary, cultural and pop cultural allusions and enticing biblical, talmudic, and alchemical references and their possible significance, the examination of otherness, the significance of the sea, the wry and world-weary humour, the meditation on the importance of story… I could go on.
Let’s start with the language. As the title implies, Barwin makes ample use of Yiddish in the book, and the text is peppered with Yiddish expressions, some translated, some not. I must say, there is something particularly infectious about Yiddish and one side-effect of reading the story may be that your own speech becomes, as mine has, colonized with these idioms, to the mystification of your family and friends. Barwin has noted elsewhere “There’s something really energizing about an admixture of languages in one sentence. It’s a vibrant polyphonic or polyrhythmic music. A lively dialogue.” Indeed it is! Pursuing the musical reference, beyond the multilingual aspects of the writing, the next quality of note is the rhythm — sentences that careen across the page with unstoppable momentum, beats that cannot be denied. Add, now, a razor-sharp ability to capture the essence of a thing in a few choice words, and a grand, rule-shaming, lexicographical derring-do, and you’ve got — well, what you’ve got is a very beguiling mix. Consider, for example, Aaron’s first impressions upon entering the great Spanish church, the Catedral de Sevilla:
Even the dried-out beef-jerky soul of an alter kaker parrot became dazed by the intoxicating lotus-scented pong of Mother Church in such a Xanadu of thurible-fumed fantasmagoria.
I anticipate little push-back when I note that writing a sentence like that requires chutzpah.
Further consider this description of an encounter in a pub:
Columbus had already called for food and drink from the barmaid who, it seemed, had been sewn together some time ago from old leather and duck meat.
To the exuberance and humour, we can add moments of admirable precision, depth, and compression, as when the social elites are described as being “buoyed by the jewelled palanquin of privilege,” (the longer one allows that image to inhabit one’s imagination, the more apt it becomes) or the quick sketch of the enormous and powerful draft horses of the wealthy “dressed in silks and resembling cantering four-poster beds.”
The predominant tone of the work is one of a tongue-in-cheek, swashbuckling good yarn, a sailor’s jig of a story, full of the self-deprecating and ironic humour of the oppressed. However, when Aaron, in his preliminary remarks, suggests to a young boy that he “bench [his] fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking,” he has far more than a slapstick tale of adventure to tell. Barwin is going after life here, the whole story, in all its glory, ugliness and pain, and uses the innocence and humour of the pirate adventure trope to pull unwitting readers closer to the heart of life’s tragedy and grief than might otherwise be possible. You’ve been warned. One minute one is rollicking along on the horns of a fine and funny adventure, secure in the belief that one’s hero must, for stylistic and genre-related purposes, prevail, and before one knows it, or can mount any kind of emotional defense, one finds one has been rollicked right into the middle of, for example, an execution scene from the Spanish Inquisition, where with a slight uptick in tension and contrast, slapdash slapstick turns macabre and lunatic, from madcap to simply mad. Barwin has a fine sense of the limits of his readers’ capacity for the terrors and horrors of human history and before things get too sobering — slap, dash, a good joke, and, if necessary, a little deus et machina, and one is whisked off to the next adventure. The near-brush with the dark-side, however, leaves a slow-fading after- image, a sombre counter-point to all the kibbitzing, and thus the story acquires a depth and poignancy that transcends its style.
Books, and the function and importance of story are ideas which infuse the work. The five mysterious volumes, which, purportedly, hold the key to the location of the fountain of youth, and thus eternal life, can clearly be associated with the Pentateuch of the Old Testament and Torah. They, along with the five section titles of the novel, Air, Fire, Water, Land, and Quintessence, trail enticing alchemical, and kabbalistic associations, which are sadly, mostly beyond my ken. However, even the uninitiated can divine that an examination of the nature of existence, and the meaning of life, may lie at the heart of this work. Throughout, the primacy of the story prevails, and, indeed, ample suggestions are given that an understanding of story is the key to life everlasting. Very early in the tale, Moishe’s adoptive father explains to his son that “The world (…) was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.” He proceeds, more specifically, to point out that, “At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever.” The key, purportedly, to the location of the fountain of youth lies within the ancient books — and, remembering that it is stories that inhabit books, perhaps the interpretation of this is meant to be more literal than the seekers suspect. Remember, as well, that Moishe has come to life in our imaginations (and in that of Aaron’s young fictional audience) because Aaron tells us his story. Further developing this idea of the story, the book is populated with more or less subtle allusions to many other great stories. Beyond the obvious biblical and talmudic references, one can find the voices of Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joseph Conrad, Huxley, Wilde, Angelou, and Leonard Cohen (and no doubt many others) singing within these pages. The overall effect is the sense that all our great stories are connected in a manner reminiscent of some of Northrop Frye’s ideas about an educated imagination, and alive and well in the world, retelling themselves, infinitely, in large and small ways.
This writing bridges the usual divide that exists between levels of life and thought — the philosophical (the meaning and nature of existence) the imaginative life of the mind (stories of identity and quest) and the far muckier absurdity of everyday life. It manages to exist in all three simultaneously, and with relish. Above all, it is a great, joyful celebration of our human capacity for story, and the magnificent collection we have amassed thus far.
Some further resources:
A brief Yiddish glossary provided by the author on his serifofnottingham blog
(Apparently a complete glossary is planned at a later date.)