Yiddish for Pirates
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
READ AN EXCERPT
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...
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