Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Literature, a hilarious, swashbuckling yet powerful tale of pirates, buried treasure and a search for the Fountain of Youth, told in the ribald, philosophical voice of a 500-year-old Jewish parrot.
Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion.
From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps. But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books. He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe's wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator. Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.
This outstanding New Face of Fiction is filled with Jewish takes on classic pirate tales--fights, prison escapes, and exploits on the high seas--but it's also a tender love story, between Moishe and Sarah, and between Aaron and his "shoulder," Moishe. Rich with puns, colourful language, post-colonial satire and Kabbalistic hijinks, Yiddish for Pirates is also a compelling examination of mortality, memory, identity and persecution from one of this country's most talented writers.
About the author
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. He is the author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry and fiction including the poetry collections frogments from the frag pool: haiku after basho (written with derek beaulieu) and Raising Eyebrows and Outside the Hat (Coach House Books) and the fiction collections Doctor Weep and other strange teeth, Big Red Baby (The Mercury Press), and Cruelty to Fabulous Animals (Moonstone Press). He is the author of The Mud Game, a novel written with Stuart Ross (The Mercury Press). Barwin is also the author of several books for children including Seeing Stars, a young adult novel (Stoddart Kids) nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award and the CLA YA Book of the Year, and Killer Poodle Made Me Island King (Fox Meadow), co-winner of the Muskoka Novel Marathon 2003. Barwin received a PhD in Music Composition and currently teaches music at Hillfield-Strathallan College and creative writing at McMaster University. Barwin lives in Hamilton, where he has cultivated vague but colourful illusions about his writing. Please don’t tell him.
- Long-listed, Canada Reads
- Winner, Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
- Winner, Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Fiction
- Short-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
Excerpt: Yiddish for Pirates (by (author) Gary Barwin)
Moishe as a child. He told me stories. Some were true.
At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother.
A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon and what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands.
He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the unknown edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky.
And nu, perhaps along the way there might be a zaftik maideleh or two, or his true love, who knew secrets also.
So this Moishe put the cartographer before the horse and left.
Luftmensch, they say. Someone who lives on air, someone whose head floats in the clouds of a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue.
The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So, nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychik sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears.
And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatte cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken in the drownedling, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.
Everything began again. Each week with its Shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Moebius strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever, his father said. His father was a mensch. His mother also. Good people. But though they spoke of it, they never tried to find out "and then what happened?" They knew. Second verse same as the first, a little bit more oysgemutshet worn out, a little bit worse.
Before he climbed out the window, Moishe left a letter for his parents.
If the world is a book, I must read it all.
He had packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants.
He had come across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. When he was eventually discovered—after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying greps, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, so better to wait until he was alone and his mother out at the mikveh.
When he unwrapped the old tallis—a prayer shawl—that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer.
Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts that seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alef-beys of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge.
It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no one—not the rabbis or the shammes or the other men—could find it.
So Moishe took the book and left.
LONGLISTED FOR CANADA READS 2021
WINNER OF THE STEPHEN LEACOCK MEDAL FOR HUMOUR
SHORTLISTED FOR THE SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD
“Across time and across continents, Gary Barwin’s novel ‘parrots’ in an altogether new way. In a ferment of salty witticism, parroty puns and unforgettable Yiddish vocabulary, this is a novel borne not just on the wings of its feathery narrator, but on its own jubilant and alluring language; its own voice. Playful, mocking, using history with audacious abandon, Yiddish for Pirates is a resplendent enjoyment. But, literally viewed from above, the novel also admonishes us about man’s inexhaustible zeal for butchery, for incessant genocide, and for affliction. We have had animal narrators throughout literary history, but Aaron the African grey parrot, from the shoulder of his pirate master, will lift you to new heights.” —Scotiabank Giller Prize jury citation
“This Giller-shortlisted novel is a romp through both history and language. Lighthearted but with uncommon depth.” —National Post
“It’s tough to compare . . . Yiddish for Pirates to, well, anything really. It’s a high-seas adventure, a linguistic tour de force and a cheerfully scathing riff on the Inquisition.” —CBC
“[A] picaresque historical novel that’s both postmodern and magic realist when it’s not an old-fashioned farce. Like Blazing Saddles, it deals through absurdity with the absurdities of bigotry. . . . [A] delightful pastiche . . . mock-scholarly vaudeville of a novel.” —Robert Fulford, National Post
“If a novel about a Jewish pirate and a sentient Yiddish-speaking five-hundred-year-old parrot seems a bit meshugge, well, give it a chance, because it turns out it’s crazy good. Gary Barwin’s first novel is a real hoot (bird pun intended). . . . Barwin . . . has crafted a wonderfully funny book.” —Ottawa Citizen
“Gary Barwin’s new novel combines swashbuckling and stories of the diaspora, told with some of the most original language play since Ulysses.” —Joyland
“Simply not like anything else. . . . [Yiddish for Pirates is] absolutely marvellous and will woo you, should you let it. . . . With some of the freshest and most whimsical English ever contained between covers, Yiddish for Pirates is a language-lover’s dream come true. . . . The breezy and improvisational feel of the words as organized make the book sing like a jazz solo in the hands of a great artist. . . . Few books manage to treat the subjects of identity, conflict, home and honour so fully and so movingly. . . . Barwin strikes a moving, masterful note. Yiddish for Pirates has an unmatched spryness in both thought and language. It doesn’t conform well to any category or trope of literature, but instead makes a place as a fresh, new thing that draws from sea shanties and Talmud, history and fantasy, romance, adventure, linguistics, fashion, and the adventure serial of the early days of movies. This book is as irrepressible as my enthusiasm for it. You’ll never read anything else like it, and that’s a shonde.” —S. Bear Bergman, The Globe and Mail
“[R]arely does one encounter a work of Canadian literature this exuberant, impassioned, and enthralled 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.” —Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire
“Gary Barwin is a gifted writer and a whiz-bang storyteller. Both are on vivid display in his hilarious tragicomic epic, Yiddish for Pirates. Narrated by a five-hundred-year-old wisecracking parrot, naturally, this swashbuckling tale had me hanging on for dear life. A wild and wonderful ride.” —Terry Fallis, author of Poles Apart and No Relation
“Yiddish for Pirates is a rollicking story, a linguistic typhoon, and the most audacious and original novel I’ve read in a long time. Gary Barwin has the imagination of David Mitchell and a galleon full of dictionaries.” —Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes
“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
“Fun, funny and entertaining. [Yiddish for Pirates is] experimental, interesting and intelligent. . . . On the surface, it’s a pirate story. A rollicking adventure. If you want to dig into language, you can. If you’re looking for a love story, it’s there. But on a deeper level, it’s largely about persecution, which means readers might be surprised to find it’s also hilarious. But it is.” —The Hamilton Spectator
“This wonderfully written novel takes you through a nautical journey with lots of heart, while providing hilarious commentary on the ideologies that fuelled the Spanish Inquisition. . . . Yiddish for Pirates . . . should generate many spirited discussions about human nature -- the lessons we've learned, or have not learned, from our collective past.” —Alpha Textbooks, “Book of the Month”
“Delightfully odd. . . . Start by imagining that Leo Rosten (of The Joys of Yiddish) and Terry Pratchett (of approximately one million fantasy novels) had a love-child. Then suspend your disbelief’s disbelief. . . . Barwin engages with the little-known history of Jewish pirates with verve and humor.” —Leah Falk, Jewniverse
Other titles by Gary Barwin
The Most Charming Creatures
Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted
The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy
Laurier Poetry Pack #5
Laurier Poetry Pack #4
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe
New and Selected Poems
No TV for Woodpeckers
I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457
Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton