‘Yiddish for Pirates’ by Gary Barwin
Yiddish pirates, treasure maps, priests who might be rabbis in disguise, a Voldemort-like Grand Inquisitor, double-crossing spies, corrupt royalty, the Fountain of Youth, and a 500-year-old parrot narrator who sounds like Groucho Marx—what more could a reader expect from an adventure novel? How about characters, especially women, with more depth than a caricature? Despite the sometimes-flat characters, Gary Barwin’s latest novel, Yiddish for Pirates, is a fun and sometimes profound read, which addresses 15th Century anti-Semitism, colonialism, slavery, and plausible reasons for terrorism. The story is told in the erudite, acerbic Yiddish vocabulary of Aaron, an African grey parrot who adopts the shoulder of young Moishe, the story’s protagonist. It is unfortunate that although Moishe and Aaron are interesting enough to follow to the end, these two are the only fully realized characters in the book.
At age 14, Moishe leaves his home in an unnamed Eastern European shtetl (village). Having fallen in love with his father’s book of maps, Moishe becomes a cabin boy on a ship bound for points west, thus beginning a lifelong journey of swashbuckling friendship with Aaron, the parrot. Since being Jewish is mostly illegal in Western Europe, Moishe’s Yiddish accent and turns of phrase nearly get him sold into slavery, but a serendipitous shipwreck throws him ashore and into the path of a young red-headed boaster named Christopher Columbus. Columbus takes Moishe to Genoa where they part company for a time, Columbus to find patronage for his explorations and Moishe to find employment at the mapmaking shop where Columbus’ brother works.
Once there, Moishe is put to work delivering forbidden books to a secret community of Jews in Seville, Spain. This is where we see Moishe’s guerilla tactics honed, especially after he meets a young Jewish girl named Sarah whose uncle betrays her and the community Moishe has come to respect. Sarah is touted on the back cover blurb as Moishe’s true love, but except for a couple of rescue attempts or revenge plots on her behalf, Moishe soon sails away with Columbus and spends most of his life on the other side of the world shtupping whatever woman is close at hand, a la Stephen Stills’ classic lyrics: “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” (Shtupping is one of Aaron’s favourite Yiddish words, apparently.)
Of the four women in the novel, Sarah is the most blank—she is young, pretty, dark-haired, sad, Jewish, and a passive victim of repeated rapes. That’s all we learn of her until she disappears into a harem. I kept waiting to discover how she feels about Moishe (or anything, really) and for Moishe to rescue her once and for all, but he’s too busy in the Caribbean to go back for her. Since the novel focuses on all kinds of injustice, including misogyny, Barwin misses an opportunity here to develop Sarah independent of Moishe or to convincingly present her as Moishe’s true love. It’s possible that Sarah symbolizes the horrific suffering of the Jewish people, but, if so, the connection is ambiguous at best. The other three women, and most of the men, are given slightly more attention, but only a few are drawn well enough to be memorable. Even the Caribbean native woman, Yakima, who joins Moishe as a pirate and shtupping partner remains opaque, silently coming and going of her own free will. Perhaps Aaron, as a flawed narrator, simply can’t empathize enough with a different species to fully understand human emotion, but surely he would have observed behaviours idiosyncratic enough to set these characters apart even if he can’t get inside their heads.
The strength of this book is its fleshing out of revisionist history through the righteous anger of both Moishe and Aaron, which has Barwin tackle both anti-Semitic medieval Europe and colonialist violence against First Nations peoples in the “new world.” Moishe’s decision to become a pirate/freedom fighter, contrary to his peaceful upbringing, makes sense as a reaction to the persecution he and his people faced, but his decision is tested when he is forced to commit similar atrocities against the people of the “new world.” Aaron draws parallels between human suffering and his own when he shares his story of being stolen from his jungle home to be “press-ganged” into service as a navy pet. His gender identity confusion, however, seems gratuitous and is treated superficially, perhaps added as a last minute addition to the list of tsuris (worries).
Ultimately, Moishe’s goal is to rediscover secret Jewish books that together reveal the location of the Fountain of Youth. This intrigue runs throughout the story and becomes more urgent when the Spanish race to get there first. Presumably Moishe wants to make sure that Torquemada, the satanic Grand Inquisitor, won’t live forever, but that motivation is not altogether clear. We know at the beginning that he and Aaron are successful in their quest because Aaron tells us how he came to live for 500 years, but the end of the story is confusing and anti-climactic.
Penguin Random House | 352 pages | $32.00 | cloth | ISBN# 9780345815514