Among the cascading absurdities, ironies, and japeries that attach to Gary Barwin’s debut novel for adults, the most outrageous has nothing to do with the book’s content. It concerns the fact that Barwin – a well-regarded writer with some 19 previous works as author, co-author, or editor – is appearing as part of Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program.
Launched in 1996 by Knopf Canada, the New Face of Fiction was designed to spotlight debut novelists who, it was hoped, would become the next generation’s household names. While it is true that other relatively established figures have had their debut works of long-form fiction branded this way (Ann-Marie Macdonald was already a Governor General’s Literary Award–winning playwright when her novel Fall on Your Knees was published as part of the line in 1996), there is something almost wilfully perverse about promoting a writer as experienced as Barwin as the “new face” of anything. After all, his latest collection of short fiction, I, Dr. Goldblatt, Orthodontist, 251–1457, appeared with Anvil Press as recently as last year. Yiddish for Pirates isn’t even technically the author’s first novel: his 2001 young adult novel Seeing Stars was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award.
But if one assumes a slightly different connotation to the word “new” – if it is taken to mean “original” or “innovative” – then there might be some validity to its application, at least from a CanLit perspective. Barwin’s book, an enthusiastic, frequently over-the-top mash-up of 15th- and 16th-century European history, Talmudic and Kabbalistic Jewish lore, swashbuckling pirate narratives, and fart jokes, is something relatively unfamiliar in the annals of this country’s recent literature. And, to cap it all off, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old African grey parrot.
The full title and subtitle of the novel, which should provide some idea of the tone and approach the author adopts, is Yiddish for Pirates: Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life and Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, the Horizon, Books and Treasure, as Told by Aaron, His African Grey. What we are in for, then, is not just a story about a 14-year-old Jewish boy who flees his shtetl in Vilnius in search of adventure on the high seas; we are to be presented with a work that, among other things, deconstructs the very techniques of novel-making that have been passed down through western literary tradition. This deconstruction is effected in no small measure by viewing that literary tradition through the prism of oral Jewish storytelling, mingling its own centuries-old traditions with liberal dollops of Yiddish slang and ribald humour.
Barwin’s narrator, Aaron the parrot, is a garralous sort. “I talk too much,” he informs us in the novel’s prelude. “But what do you expect? Five hundred years old, I’m an alter kaker geezer of the highest degree, with a brain like a cabbage roll.” Aaron’s age is propitious, allowing him to make all sorts of anachronistic references, from Shakespearean allusions to Molotov cocktails. And puns. Lots, and lots of puns. “My shorn feathers grew back though I kept them under my wing,” Aaron says at one point. “Strabo and Liliana would not know I was a flight risk.” Or elsewhere: “A sailor who was injured and lost and arm or a leg received additional money. Severance pay.” A little of this can go a long way.
But Barwin’s infatuation with wordplay and his narrator’s logorrhea belie a more serious intent: the novel features hijinx on the high seas, plenty of violence, and cameos from Christopher Columbus and Torquemada, but all of it is in the service of an arch commentary on the ills of colonialism and the power imbalances that lead to persecution on the basis of race, religion, or other identifiable characteristics.
While in Spain, Moishe and Aaron witness an auto-da-fé, one of the Inquisition’s notorious rituals of punishment, during which so-called “penitents” were tortured and burned at the stake. Moishe escapes this fate by a combination of guile, luck, and the intercession of his faithful feathered companion, and eventually finds his way to the New World aboard the Santa María. There, he discovers a group of Jews who have fled Spain and now hide out dressed as natives – another layered comment on the oppression and presecution of various groups. Though in this particular instance, Barwin himself skirts trouble: references to “Geronimovitz and Dances-with-Wolfowitz,” as well as a quip about “Shlepp-and-Kvetchit Jews” could be construed as well-intentioned social commentary that crosses the line into racial insensitivity.
If not all of his gambits pay off, Barwin’s extraordinary chutzpah is nevertheless a source of admiration: rarely does one encounter a work of Canadian literature this exuberant, impassioned, and entralled with the very nature and essence of storytelling. Yiddish for Pirates is many things: a postmodern pastiche, an episodic picaresque, a compendium of tales competing to see which can stand tallest, and a virtual catalogue of Jewish humour through the ages. Barwin himself is not a new face on the Canadian literary firmament, but his novel feels sui generis, regardless