Fiction – hardcover; Random House Canada; 333 pages; 2016.
If there is one thing I can say about Gary Barwin’s Giller Prize-shortlisted Yiddish for Pirates it is this: I’ve never read a book so jam-packed with word play and creative use of language as this one. I would describe it as a kind of literary vaudeville; a mesmirising act of vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, puns and similes. And, if that’s not enough, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old parrot with a penchant for jokes and scathing one-liners. Yes, really.
The story is essentially a boy’s own adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition involving the aforementioned parrot — an African Grey called Aaron — and a Jewish man called Moishe, whose shoulder he perches on.
Fleeing persecution, this “odd couple” is helped in part by an underground network of Jewish sympathisers as they endeavour to save a rare library of important Jewish texts. Along the way they fall in with Christopher Columbus and set sail for the New World. Their journey is ripe with adventure, piracy, danger, violence and revenge.
Overdosing on word play
Sounds exciting, right? But this is where I put up my hand and confess that Yiddish for Pirates was really not for me. Maybe I have a prejudice against animal narrators (for instance, I hated last year’s Giller winner, Fifteen Dogs, which was, of course, narrated by a succession of canines), but I just couldn’t engage with the story. It was too clever, too knowing. I was always aware that I was reading a book; I was always aware of the word play and the creative writing “stunts”.
The thing is, I like word play and jokes —
Oh, and by the way, the Caribs are people who eat people.
You can pick your friends.
And you can pick your teeth.
And you can pick your friends from your teeth. Sometimes little bits of them get stuck there after a nosh.
— but the unrelenting nature of them (every single line, in fact) became wearing. I longed for Barwin to relax, to just tell the story, to let the words breathe.
Every now and then I’d come across a killer line:
The sails were pale papers waiting to be written on by the wind.
But for every great zinger of a description, there’d be another that perplexed me completely.
At least when I wasn’t feather-puffed geshvollen and stultiloquent blather and narishkayt.
I think it’s fair to say that by the last page I felt wrung out by this curious, convoluted novel. If I didn’t have to read it for my Shadow Giller jury obligations, I’m pretty sure I would have cast it aside — set it adrift, so to speak. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book — as a feat of imagination, as a literary exercise and as a truly unique story it’s pretty hard to beat.
For a more positive take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow jury member Naomi’s review.
This is my 5th book for the #ShadowGiller2016