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Yiddish for Pirates

I’ve read one final book for 2016. I know, because I looked at my Goodreads list of books I read this year, that it happens to be my 12th for the year. This latest book is Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin – one of the Giller finalists.

Yiddish for Pirates is a most unusual book. It is, after all, narrated by a 500 year old parrot named Aaron, who speaks several languages, including Yiddish, and has a flair for wordplay, puns and corny jokes. Aaron meets up with a young Jewish man named Moishe who becomes his “shoulder”. Together they become involved in all kinds of adventures, from saving persecuted Jews in Spain during the Inquisition, to sailing with Columbus, becoming pirates, and chasing the elusive fountain of youth.

Aaron narrates with a liberal smattering of Yiddish. This caused me a some difficulty since I know no Yiddish, although it didn’t stop me from understanding what was going on in the story. It may have caused me to miss some of the subtleties of the novel though, and I confess I had no urge to stop and look up each of the Yiddish references. Aaron’s peculiar narrative style does set up a most distinctive voice, which for me wavered between novel and somewhat irritating as I waded through the book.

It’s an adventure story and an adventure in reading, and so it makes sense that Moishe and Aaron become obsessed with finding a group of books – which as a group promise secrets of immortality. I don’t know the extent to which Yiddish for Pirates references other literature. I’m just not that well-read. I did recognize a reference The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karomazov, and a significant chunk of the book is set amidst the Inquisition.

I’ve never read anything like this book. It is fiercely creative and full of wordplay, sarcasm, satire, historical commentary and more. Yiddish for Pirates is not the easiest read, but well worth persevering.

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