Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin

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Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.

So, you ask, how did this shell-less cheder-bocher – schoolboy – drawn from the waters of Ashkenaz find himself on the Spanish Main, the blade of his sword pressed against the quivering kishkas of Spanish captains? How did Columbus, the Inquisition, and the search for some books cause us to seek for life everlasting?

And, come to think of it, how did I, an African Grey, become his mishpocheh, his family, and he my perch, my shoulder in the world?

And so begins the tale of Moishe and Aaron, his parrot.

A bookmark without a book doesn’t know where it is. Moishe was my slim volume, my scrawny story. My shoulder.

Together they take on the Inquisition,

“Since the beginning, they have tried to kill us Jews, but ha-Shem – God – gives the story a little, what you would call, a drey, a twist, and then somehow, we aren’t destroyed. Until the next time.”

Christopher Columbus the pompous,

The ship’s master unfurled the flag of the Spanish Kingdoms and planted it in the sand. For we shall have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth and have a fancy brocaded flag to prove it.

and the Ocean Sea.

To be at sea is to know vastness, to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home, toward story.

They seek “revenge and retribution from Spanish ships and their gold”,

Was I surprised my hopeful pink boychik Moishe had turned pirate? Feh.

God Hisself would have turned pirate if, on bumping into the New World, He had seen that the othershtupping Spanish had discovered only a larger canvas on which to paint their murderous scenes. The same hateful fire burned inside their poxy hearts as fueled Inquisition flames. They had persecuted Jews. Now they persecuted Los Indios.

and they search for the Fountain of Eternal Life.

“Ach, who needs immortal life?” I answered. “It’s but a larger sack to fill with misery.”

“But it works the other way, too,” Moishe said. “Trouble would scatter like ashes in the wind over a life-without-end. And anyway, it’s the Fountain of Youth, so you’re made young again. Younger than your memories, younger than your pain.”

“Eternal relief.”

“An everlasting finger to those who tried to erase us: here we are, a permanent stain on the pages of history.”

They suffer great sorrow but maintain hope for the future.

I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting. That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body. Sha. I’m only looking for this treasure, these books, this poxy fountain, because, like a shlemiel, I still believe – keneynehoreh – in life instead of death. But, takeh, it’d be easier to be dead.

And through it all, Aaron can’t help but crack his jokes.

I smiled sheepishly. If a parrot could be said to be sheepish. Or to smile.

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This book comes with a warning: despite the jolly feel of the novel, there are some very graphic scenes of violence. You’re thinking it be the pirates. But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics, and the great explorers of the New World who think the Native Islanders are soul-less.

Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron go.

In the Acknowledgements, Barwin says that he dedicates this book to his family: “I have tried to infuse it with wonder, thoughtfulness, wit, intelligence, culture, love and compassion. If I have succeeded in this in any way, it is because I have learned these things from them.”

He has succeeded.

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With Yiddish For Pirates, Gary Barwin has earned every last ‘blurb’ about his book. Here are a couple that I especially like:

“All my life I have been waiting for the romantic tale of a Kabbalistic Jewish pirate as filtered through a uniquely Canadian perspective. Today, my prayers have been answered and then some.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

“What an accomplishment! What an imagination! The wit, the wordplay, and the subversive humour make this a thoroughly original and delightful novel.” Lauren B. Davis, Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author of Our Daily Bread and Against a Darkening Sky

For someone so accomplished, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him until his book made the Giller longlist. Happily, that has been rectified, and I hope the treasure that is Yiddish For Pirates will bring him much well-deserved recognition.

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Yiddish for Pirates is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The review in the Globe & Mail claims that Yiddish For Pirates is “unlike anything else you’ll read this year”.

The review in The Star reveals some of what Barwin was thinking as he wrote his book.

“Pirates were these word-invention machines. These insults and swashbuckling threats are such a juicy joy to speak,” he says. “That’s a component of that in Yiddish as well. People who speak Yiddish love to revel in the Yiddishisms and clever charismatic ways of saying things. It’s so fun to riff off of those.”

Gary Barwin’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

*Thank you to Random House of Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!