Yiddish for Pirates. Gary Baldwin.

Baldwin, Gary. Yiddish for Pirates. Penguin Random House, Toronto. 2016. F;9/17.

This is a riotous, joking, silly, serious, picaresque, rollick of an odyssey. You can see aging impishness in the online pictures of the author’s face, and he has an impressive list of poetry and children’s books to his credit to confirm our impression of the macho but sly fun he obviously lives by.

We get a heavy dose of a historical voyage, search for the fountain of youth, books and words having metaphysical importance, swashbuckling heroism, cavalierisim about death, and low Judaism as manifested in its colloquial Yiddish. There are moments (one at least) where cleverness, bravery, and stealth leap to a credible representation of good and evil in the abstract, but the overall tone is ironic. It has depth, but maybe better to think of its being fundamental.

The action takes place in the late 15th century and the narrator is a 500-year-old parrot, introducing the plausible but impossible stuff of animated cartoons. Coincidence lands the bird and his master on Christopher Columbus’s ships after a variety of adventures including bearding the king and queen of Spain. So why are we messing around way back in the Renaissance? What are we after?

Well it’s some weirdly scriptural Jewish books, containing or associated with pirate treasure maps, all directing us via an extremely circuitous and unlikely route to a fountain of youth in the New World. Some of the plot obscurity involves word plays between English and Yiddish that I don’t think I understood. I suggest when you sit down to read this story, unless you are fluent, that you find yourself a Yiddish dictionary. A lot of the Yiddish can be guessed from the context, but at times I couldn’t follow the action without some translation.

I’m reminded of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Jewish irony, silly basic plot assumptions, tricky rollercoaster rides, puns and sly and usually crude Jewish references: “foreskin and seven years ago…” The feeling is like klezmer music as I think it was revived in the 1970s: a bit crazy and a bit laughing at itself but still technically bravura and plenty of fun.

It’s in that same low Jewish teasing spirit that we are encouraged to appreciate the final few pages. There’s a neat riff. But is it also something symphonic and profound? All we can say for sure is it is what it is. I would say it comes pretty close, but I’m happy to hear the music stopping short of blowing its own horn. 8.2/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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