Deadly Serious, Dead Sea Humour - Nov. 2017

“Check out what the Prince reads.” Naz said. 

“That will give you ideas.”

My colleague, a molecular biologist, did not recall ever reading humorous literature from his homeland and confessed that the weightiness of chemistry, biology, and physics texts consumed his youth. But he told me that “the Prince” – fully Prince El Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - a speed reader with diverse interests -  burns through a book every day and publishes his favourites on the web.

Heading to the Dead Sea in November 2017 for the World Science Forum, I wanted to study what made people smile in an Arab country: one encircled by Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

In my initial searches for “satire” in the Middle East, I found references to words like “interrogation," and learned that the Saudis had just marked their 100th execution of the year and recently imprisoned a young singer-actor for fooling around on stage and briefly “doing the dab” hip-hop dance.

Jordan, a relatively peaceful place, has a friendlier tone on the web, but still seemed light on humorists and humorous stories.  Knowing our hotel and the Convention Centre faced the Qumran hills and site of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, I looked for “humour” linked to “the Dead Sea” and the scrolls.  This turned up web stories about a “funny” guy who thought he was as smart as God and another character who thought God didn’t know what he was doing.  I guess that stuff could make you smile and reflect living in the Holy Land. 

On this basis, I considered a humorous-literature side trip into Amman to see the Copper Scroll in the new national museum.  But it would stretch things a bit to tie this particular Dead Sea Scroll, a non-biblical list of locations and precious metals, to the study of literature, humorous or otherwise.

That’s why I turned to my friend Naz and the staff at the Embassy in Ottawa for suggestions of Jordanian humour to read. 

The people at the Embassy gave me tourist brochures and smiles.

So I followed Naz’s suggestion.  Checking out the Prince, an intellectually vigorous, multi-lingual graduate of Oxford, one accepts lavish accounts of his erudition and easily finds lists of his favored reading materials.  But these books dealt exclusively with humorless thinking on economics, religion, and politics.

I started thinking about giving the Dead Sea Scrolls another look.

But the suggestion to “check out the Prince” assumed greater authority a week later, on the other side of the world (at the International Council for Science (ICSU) General Assemby in Taipei) where I met Professor Muhammad Saidam, Chief Scientist of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, during a coffee break.

I brought the conversation around to my humour hobby and had to smile when he too said that “chemistry, biology, and physics texts” had consumed his life and, again, that I should check out the Prince.  But as an environmental engineer who knew Prince Hassan personally and in a professional context, Professor Saidam had an explicit recommendation. 

“Look at his writing on sanitation and water.”

Prince El Hassan and the Jordanian Royal family as a whole bend toward public service, study, and the promotion of peace.  At seventy-years of age, His Royal Highness could fill pages with credentials in the cause of sustainable development, interfaith dialogue, and peace. He personally founded institutions ranging from the Royal Jordanian Polo Club to the Royal Scientific Society. 

But Professor Saidam’s remark directed me to  the Prince’s role as Chairman of the UNSGABWS. 

The Professor didn’t try pronouncing the acronym, rather he said “the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.”

The Board has vital issues on its hands.  Over a quarter of the people on our plant without modern sanitation systems, and close to a billion cannot access clean water.  No wonder water and sanitation lie at the heart of the UN Millennium Development Goals.  They also interest Jordanians.

Spend an hour travelling around Jordan any time of the year, and the importance of water and water management will glare at you like the mid-day sun.  The country also has seen its population skyrocket and water resources strained with the influx of refugees from Syria and other conflicts zones tied to droughts and the ensuing mass migration.  

In this context, the Prince’s interest in water and sanitation might not be too surprising, and his public comments and speeches make it a clear priority.

But you might be surprised to know the extent to which he advances his interests through - toilet humour.

He has given his name to editorial and other thought pieces that begin with jokes and riddles like “Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill?  To get to the bottom” and include bad puns like “bum deal” and “flash in the pan” when introducing arguments around sanitation standards.

Reportedly when first being briefed on his new UNSGABWS role, the Prince had a hard time stifling the giggles because so many water conferences, water congresses, and water councils had W.C. imbedded in their acronyms.

In reading the full text of his articles and speeches, you realize that Prince Hassan jokes purposely and with consideration.  Clearly recognizing the inevitability of nervous laughter when talking toilets and poop, he has decided to get it out of the way by making the jokes himself before his reading and listening audiences do so with their own distracting thoughts.  

I think it works.  Even though toilet-linked riddles and puns seem silly, they intrigue in this context, lead you into reading more, and ultimately teach.

In one article Prince Hassan co-authored to mark the UN’s first "World Toilet Day" in 2013, “deadly serious facts” follow the funny intro to remind snickering readers that 10 million viruses can be found in only one gram of human feces.

Not only do billions of people lack access to decent sanitation, over a billion humans must defecate in the open “in fields, on roadsides, on railway tracks.” The situation robs  people of their dignity, exposes young women to special risks, forces many young people to drop out of school, and leaves “2 billion tons of human feces, with a dizzying number of potential viruses, bacteria and worm eggs … lying around our planet ready to be trodden on, touched or ingested in water and food.”

This phenomenon lies beneath one of the planet’s deadliest killers - diarrhea.  This avoidable and unassuming disease takes the lives of almost two thousand – 2,000 ! - children every day.

Hard to laugh as you work your way through the Prince’s speeches and stats on water and sanitation, but also hard to deny the power of humour to engage and thus to make information memorable.

After reading these articles, I knew that my humour-student priority in Jordan would be to hear the Prince speak and to see if he employed his mix of humour and the deadly serious in other settings. 

This seemed quite possible since the Prince, as founder of the Royal Scientific Society and father of the World Science Forum organizer, Princess Sumaya, had committed to speak at the Forum opening.  Despite a mix up with my credentials (requiring proof the “Richard” was also “Dick”), I managed to slip into the convention centre just in time to hear his keynote on the opening day.

The speech went on longer than scheduled and could be labelled a bit rambling by the unkind.  But I loved it.  It brimmed with passion, intellect, serious convictions, and, as I hoped, humour. 

The Prince had me before he even began his speech. 

As you can imagine, the poor soul charged with introducing the Royal keynote felt obliged to elucidate the long list of projects and causes led by his Highness over the last half century.  But before this man could finish the list, the Prince came up to podium and waved the introducer away while laughing.  Prince Hassan explained that long introductions distort the importance of a particular person, adding that none of the 3,000 of us in the room were really that important individually.

“Humanity is important,” he said, explaining that it is our shared and common welfare that is important.

In a similar way, he peppered his remarks on peace, sustainability, and human dignity with asides that made the audience smile and reflect.  For a taste of his thinking, check out the book To be a Muslim.

As for humour and humanity, the Prince touched me most with a tribute to his friend, the late Usama al-Khalidi, the Jerusalem-born, Arab biochemist who was being honoured in tandem with Sir Isaac Newton that day.

“When I was in university in Britain, we had two kinds of professors – the distinguished professors – and the extinguished professors – both liked to talk and talk, one kind you didn’t want to stop – my friend was one of those,” the Prince said, voice wavering at times.

The Prince did go on at length.  I personally could have listened to him longer, but he cut into others' time - notably Irish science advisor Mark Ferguson, who got squeezed between Prince Hassan and the arrival of his nephew King Abdullah and had to finish his thought-provoking talk a few days later at the closing ceremonies.

Ferguson’s speech warranted the sequel.  He gave hope to the room with his country’s efforts to push violence into it past, how science had defeated disease, and how our minds, our souls, and our world could accommodate different points of view. 

But I have to admit that the closing ceremonies delighted me most because I had another chance to hear my humour-and-serious-stuff hero, Prince Hassan.  

There he sealed his status as someone I would love to meet someday with his on-stage affection for his daughter, his respect for the Jordanians responsible for the Forum’s success, his concern for all of humanity, and his indulgence in a few more splashes of that deadly serious humour. 

Leacock and Lin - Chinese Humour - Taipei 2017

“If we could only learn to live our life
 in harmony with the rhythm of nature.
But we will not. We want to run forever in the scorching sun.”  

Lin Yutang

Knowing that I like to study the resident sense of humour when travelling, my friend Jane Tsai said “definitely Lin Yu-tang would be the Chinese author that you are looking for” after I told her I would be going to Taipei in the fall of 2017.

“When I was growing up, he was the revered master of humour in China and Taiwan,” she said. “You should have fun exploring his work.”

Jane pointed me to two of Lin’s books: My Country My People, an attempt to address some myths “Westerners” had about the Chinese, and The Importance of Living, a book that promoted the inherent rationality of human beings. Lin wrote both in the mid-1930s as those humans swirled toward the brutal irrationality of war.

In his books, Dr. Lin tried to build a porthole to Oriental mentality and, particularly, the thinkers of the past. Though a scholar with graduate degrees from Leipzig and Harvard, Lin eschewed the label of philosopher and presented himself instead as a humble purveyor of the thoughts of Confucius, Buddha, and others. 

“I often study the joys and regrets of the ancient people,” he said. “As I lean over their writings … (I) see that they were moved exactly as ourselves.”

Lin tells his readers that respect for the learnings and wisdom of the past is a feature of daily Chinese life.  This shows in the “the premium generally placed upon old age in China” where “it is a privilege of the old people to talk, while the young must listen and hold their tongue.”

Always wrapped in an amiable case for tolerance and open-mindedness, Lin’s books pull up many ideas from the past that sparkle with a thoughtful kind of optimism and can still charm today.

“The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly,” he writes. “Only an insane type of mind can erect the state into a god and make of it a fetish to swallow up the individual’s right of thinking, feeling and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the early 21st century, we might find solace in his suggestion that when a small man “casts a long shadow,” it means the sun is about to set on him and in his hope that as machines assume a bigger role in our world, we will be edging “nearer to the age of leisure, and man will be compelled to play more.”

Lin also spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of writing, and perhaps because he sought to speak to one culture from a footing in another and to give voice to ancient times today, he stressed the need to keep the perceptions of the audience in mind. He reminds us that writing and reading are acts “consisting of two sides, the author and the reader.”

But as the “scorching sun” comment above suggests, the Professor couples his lessons on writing and scholarly research with a case for finding time to just take it easy, to slow down, to live “in harmony with the rhythm of nature,” and to contemplate life with a smile.  He argued that to achieve brilliance, we need, like good wine, to sit still, let time pass, and mellow.  It occurred to me that this slowing down and taking life in a light-hearted way advice might also be useful in any quest to be a clear thinker and humorous writer.

Amused and intrigued, I wanted to know more and searched for other quotes and biographical material.  I learned that though Lin was born on the Mainland (1865) and died in Hong Kong (1976), he spent the last ten years of his life in Taiwan.  He designed and built a house on the slopes of Yangminshan mountain just north of Taipei, and his body  lies entombed in the garden behind the home. Now known as “Lin Yu-tang House,” it serves as a library, museum, and education centre open to the public.

If my trip to Taipei had not been short, work-related, and laden with meetings, I would have made plans to visit Lin Yu-tang House from the outset. 

But when I arrived in Taipei, I learned that a visit to the House would mean walking several miles up winding roads from the closest subway stop. 

I couldn’t see how a visit to the place could fit into my tight four-day schedule and tried to push the idea out of my mind.

But this grew harder and harder to do that evening as I read more and more of The Importance of Living and particularly when I came upon sections that spoke directly to my interests in the Chinese sense of humour, mused on the craft of humour writing, and, to my surprise  - talked about Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.  Under the dark clouds of his times, Lin suggests in The Importance of Living that the world’s humorists might be the key to averting war and says that Leacock, in particular, should be called upon to ensure peace.

“Send for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats,” Lin says. “and the world will be saved.”

He puts Stephen Leacock in the chair of this imagined peace conference explaining the Canadian humorist would win the world over with a general apology for the foibles common to all of humanity, “gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others.”

Lin admired Leacock and many other Western humorists.  In their writings, he saw the means of tying man’s dreams to the physical world saying while it is important to dream, it was equally important to retain the capacity to laugh at those dreams and integrate them with the realities of life.

Lin did not immediately see a parallel in Chinese literature and even undertook to create his own, original wording to translate the notion of Western humour for the Chinese.  Yet, when describing Chinese culture and its ideal human manifestation, he cites “the happy go lucky, carefree scamp,” and his views and insights on humour and humour writing draw on Chinese philosophy as much as the literature of the West.

In reading these references, I realized that the tangled lines and box-like symbols of Chinese writing make people laugh and feel not in literal meanings but rather in the memories and images that those sounds and words evoke.  Recognizing this, Lin notes that Chinese poets and scholars always gave themselves evocative names, like – Tu Fu (“The Guest of Rivers and Lakes”) and Su Tungp’o (“The Recluse of the Eastern Hillside”) and other names with original meanings like the “Carefree Man of a Misty Lake” and “The Old Man of the Haze-Girdled Tower.”  Single Chinese words can alone compel one envisage multifaceted acts like walking out into a courtyard after a full meal, staring at the sky, and waiting for the moon to rise.  Other words can evoke nuanced images such as a man travelling the world in his imagination while lying in bed.

Knowing that the ancient Chinese poets had access to tools like these, it becomes easier to understand how their work became so powerful and enduring.

I learned as I read and loved the thinking, the style, and soft wisdom of Lin’s books.  I had to find a way to slip out of my meetings for a few hours and make a quick visit to Lin Yutang House.  With the help of a volunteer translator and a fist of New Taiwanese dollars, I arranged with a cab driver to take me up the mountain on the understanding that he would wait while I made a heated tour of the property and home.

As our cab moved through Taipei, it became clear that neither the driver nor the ambient traffic recognized the need to make this a quick trip. Clogged streets in a big Asian city shouldn’t shock, but light rain and slippery streets slowed everyone a bit on this day, and my driver kept pulling over in the midst of traffic, chatting in Mandarin and pointing out the sites.  I grinned, nodded, and gently waved to keep going.  When he stopped on an overpass and tried to get me to photograph the National Palace Museum, I grew a bit tense, glared, and shook my head.

As we moved on and climbed the mountainside, rounded the wet curves, and looked out on the city, I tried to forget my schedule and relax.  Giant, colorful flowers filled the cab, maybe there to offset smoke in the front and the sweaty tourists in the back, and I pointed my nose toward the pleasant part of the air and thought about Lin Yutang’s counsel.

Spotting his house as we approached, I pulled out my phone, checked my watch, and plotted my hasty tour of the site.  On this drizzly weekday afternoon in October, only a few others were at the site and it took a while to find someone who could sell me a ticket.

Coming back to the counter, I noticed that my cab had disappeared and wondered exactly what the helpful Chinese speaker back in Taipei had actually said to the driver.  Not sure when he would return and not wanting to run up the fare, I checked out the house as quickly as I could.  The exhibitions do not consume a lot of floorspace.  Arguably, the best part - Dr. Lin’s study - lies immediately to the right of the entrance.  With crammed bookshelves, an old desk and padded chairs, it certainly feels like a philosopher’s thinking chamber.  The other rooms hold furniture and photos, paintings and sculptures, clothing and personal items. I took pictures with my phone, finished my tour in about fifteen minutes, and again looked out front hoping to see my taxi and wondering if the staff could call another. 

The cab driver didn’t come back for another hour.  During this time, I kept going around the house again and again.  I made three tours of the rooms, checked out the café, and circled the exterior twice. Slowing down a bit more each time, I always noticed something I had missed before, and each time appreciating the experience and Lin Yutang a little more.

In his den, I noted the eclectic collection of books, most in Chinese, which I assumed were poetry or philosophy for no other reason than their aged appearance. The books in English were a mix of popular novels, history, and academic works.  I recognized manuscripts of Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English Dictionary, and this seemed to exemplify his role as a bridge between two worlds. 

In the other rooms, I realized that the paintings and calligraphy were actually works done by Lin himself, and when I saw the photos of his wife, I could feel the affection and warmth of life in this home. The glass cases that at first seem an odd, haphazard assortment actually spoke in a thematic way to that blend of thinking, doing, smiling, and relaxing expressed in his books. The variety of pipes, for example, reminded me of Lin’s funny essay on smoking and his tribute to its capacity to relax and induce reflection.

I knew that Dr. Lin had invented, built and sold a Chinese typewriter, the first workable model some suggest, and I had noticed drawings of the device when I first made my tour of the House.  The second time I paused in front of the display and absorbed that this was only one of a number of inventions and that Lin was not merely a tinkerer who built a particular tool for his own trade, but had a creative mind that dipped into many arena.

“Today human progress still consists very largely in chasing after some form or other of lice that is bothering human society,” he said in speaking generally of the process of invention.

I had checked out the courtyard with its waterfall when I first arrived, but now I noticed how it affected the entire home and how most rooms felt its calming influence. It reminded me of the home’s purposeful design as an integrated feature of the natural world.  Built in layers, it starts with the park-like mountainside property rim, followed by the outer walls around the gardens, then the main structure and its rooms, and finally the courtyard in the middle.

“This is the house, in which there is a garden, in which there is a home, in which there are trees, above which is the sky, in which is the moon,” as the Lin Yutang House publicity states.

 As I strolled around outside, I noticed the tangle of tree roots and the random rock piles that seemed to flow around the building and embrace it.  The property slopes down at the back, and the author’s tomb sits in the gardens below the rear balcony.  It gleams and stands out as a shiny badge in the midst of the green and reminds you that there is something special here even though the rest of the home feels humble, natural, and otherwise unadorned.  

Standing at Lin’s grave for the second time, instead of looking down, I turned to a break in the leafy trees that framed a view of the valley, and immediately, I thought of Lin’s claim that the poorest man on a mountainside lived a richer life than the wealthiest one in the city.  I knew he must have looked at this view when he formed those thoughts.

Coming back to the entrance, I saw my smiling cab driver waiting by the entrance.  I went over to him and signaled that I wanted a little more time.  Inside once again, I peered into the only room I had not explored, initially thinking it was an administrative office.  The narrow hall actually holds a reading room, space for lectures and research, and a modest bookstore. I bought a few copies of My Country My People and The Importance of Living as gifts for people I like, and the young guy who sold them to me offered to take my photo outside the house.

He told me to stand in the sun for better light.  I did, but it didn’t feel quite right.
Heading back to town and the blazing sun of meetings and work, I resolved to seek out the shade once in a while, slow down a bit, and align a little with the rhythm of nature, smile, and laugh more. 

“For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try the harder to enjoy it,” said Lin, a man who often waffled on the subject of religion and blind adherence to beliefs.

Out the cab window rainwater bubbled in streams along the roadside, and I thought about Lin’s ode to “Three laughs at the Tiger Brook,” a story represented by a famous painting in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The painting shows three religious leaders laughing with the realization they had just passed into tiger territory engrossed in conversation. Their unity in humour and the story came to represent the ideal of harmony among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in ancient China and is an enduring symbol of the potential for peaceful co-existence and life in harmony with nature. 

This time as we went onto the highway overpass by the National Museum, I asked the driver to slow down and pull over so I could take a photo.

Not-so-Grim Fairy Tales - Germany

 “You know the stepsisters chopped off their toes, and there was one about sex with that amphibian, and others so violent you’d never read them to adults let alone kids.”

Hurtling down Bundesautobahn Number 5, my German-born wife assured me that we didn’t need a map and that 150 kilometres meant the slow lane, and I tried to convince her that the Brothers Grimm were not really that grim. 

 We were on our way to her childhood home in the Black Forest, but still talking about a side trip the day before and debating its relevance to the study of humorous literature. 

We had just spent a day in Hanau, the birthplace and childhood home of two other German natives, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

 “They cut out a lot of that bloody feet and creepy sex stuff out,” I said arguing that the Brothers might qualify as humorists. “They really tried to lighten things up.”

The Grimm brothers considered themselves academic researchers and scholarly champions of the German language.  But in the 205 years since their famous publication, the Grimm name most often evokes images of fairies and witches, princes and princesses, and wide-eyed children.  While studying philology and culture at university, the brothers developed a special interest in oral histories and began collecting folk tales in the early 19th century when Napoleon’s armies and infighting threatened German societies.

The brothers regarded the stories as foundational and pure untainted by ephemeral circumstance and thus vessels for the essence of what it meant to be and to speak German.  They believed their work had great import, and their dedication to German culture manifested in many projects including the launch of a comprehensive dictionary.

That first 1812 collection of folktales, Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) and its later editions popularized stories that we all know well: Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Goose Girl, Rapunzal, The Frog King, and Cinderella.
Today, the stories, translated into a hundred languages and shared as movies, stage productions, and toy-store collectables, remain enormously popular.  Yet even with massive smoothing out by Walt Disney and other modern hands, Grimm’s Fairy Tales can still leave little kids pleading to leave the lights on and wondering anxiously what in Hell lies out there waiting for them in the forests, farms, and villages of the world. 

Because of their scholarly aspirations, the Brothers played down or denied editing of the oral histories.  But their well-documented revisions included the deletion of those scenes like the bloody attempt to fit oversized feet into to Cinderella’s glass slipper, Rapunzel’s post-Prince pregnancy, and intercourse with the recently transformed frog.

On the basis of this rewriting, you might argue that Jacob and Wilhelm wanted the stories to amuse as well as instruct and qualify as humorists of a particular genre.  Certainly, readers who measure their years in single digits, giggle and smile, albeit nervously, and adults like my wife recall first exposures to Grimms’ fairy tales with affection.   

But I think the greatest reason humour-writing students might want to visit the dour but authentic Schloss Philippsruhe palace museum, the town square in Hanau, and other sites linked to the Brothers Grimm rests on a particular interpretation of Stephen Leacock’s renowned characterization of humour.  Leacock defined humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof.”

Guided by 21st century Canadian scholars, I now understand this to mean that humour flows from a careful highlighting of life’s tensions in a way that reflects the perspective of a particular “kind” of people, a kinship, a community, a society.

With this lens, the Brothers Grimm may offer one of the very best ways to learn about German culture and its evolution.
   Read accounts of those oral histories and their times, seek out Grimm Brother touchstones across Germany, hike along the Fairy Tale Trail, and study the forces behind the cheery editing of the last two hundred years. 

Visit castles, drink beer, eat sausages, learn, and smile.

But as you review the original stories, search for a German sense
of humour, and hurl down the autobahn at 150 kilometres per 
hour be prepared for a little bit of dread

Of Fubs and Feathers

Scroll Down for Other 2017 Shortlist books

“Dick’s out of town,” she says. “He’s at another fub.”

My wife has her own way of describing my book events.  

Fub – short for Finger Up Butt.

I’ve sure done my share of standing around, ignored.  Book signings in empty stores, roundtables as the least popular panelist, and readings before an open bar. 

Awkward ? Yes. But not “ahhh-ch-ward.”  

At least I could say I have never had to perform parrot sex in front of my parents.

On the eve of his 2017 Leacock Medal win, Gary Barwin entertained his mom, dad, and others chewing on poultry at Orillia’s Mariposa Inn with an animated reading from Yiddish for Pirates.  The chosen excerpts told of piracy and persecution, love and lashings, the Torah and torrid parrot sex.

I know no one who doesn’t laugh at the book’s premise: a pirate story told by a five-hundred-year-old kibitzing African grey from a perch in a Florida seniors’ residence.  With a sip from the fountain of youth and hundreds of years to learn, the narrator, Aaron, absorbed many languages, many stories, and enough Yiddish to give life to his reminisces of high seas adventure on the shoulder of his master Moishe. Moishe, or, when opportune, Miguel, was a Lithuanian Jew whose life leads him through Inquisition-era Spain to the captain’s chair of a Caribbean pirate ship.

I like to laugh, read engaging stories, and even to listen to old timers parroting their memories. I enjoyed the book in this way.  But I can’t help reading stuff like Yiddish for Pirates through the lens of the Leacock Medal and my aspirations to be a writer with fewer fubs.

Obviously, the premise creates a powerful vessel that is easy to recognize as something different.  But it could have run off into a sea of clichés and corniness in my hands. 

Gary Barwin avoids the reefs with skill and imagination worth studying.  A composer, poet, and artist as well as author of twenty books, he executes the parrot and pirate idea with great creativity, and this might be expected. But he also brings in his affection for Yiddish culture and his knowledge of history in an elegant way that informs and inspires without ever pushing the story off course or taking the wind out of its sails by saying stuff like “avoid the reefs,” “off course,” and “taking the wind out its sails” – too much.

With the same mastery, Barwin uses the Spanish Inquisition, piracy, and people of another era to raise touchy issues of today and suggest why the persecuted might find recourse in terrorizing violence.  A parrot seeking a partner after months at sea, oblivious to the willingness, gender, and precise sub-species of the other also speaks to the interface of casual sex, loneliness, biology, and the mores of other animals.

Some book reviewers laud Barwin for a “postmodern” style and his “deconstruction” of the novel.  I think reviewers just like to say “postmodern” and “deconstruction” when they can.  It is particularly impressive if you can do it twice in one paragraph.

But I see Yiddish for Pirates as an homage to classic novels.  Aaron certainly reminds me of the narrator of Don Quixote, a translator of a second-hand account written in Arabic; and much in Moishe’s story (the book’s full title is Yiddish for Pirates: Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life and Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, the Horizon, Books and Treasure, as Told by Aaron, His African Grey) echoes Gulliver’s Travels (originally Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships).  The book also sits well beside earlier Leacock Medal works like Morley Torgov’s that introduced others to Jewish community and cares with humour and kibitzing stories.

Leacock looking down as Gary performs Parrot Sex 
Aaron, in fact, tells the reader at the outset that his tale will follow well-worn storytelling paths and will raise model questions like “and then what happened?” and “what happened next?” and “what is this treasure and where’s it buried?” Does he get “the girl?” And, additionally, what about all the balmelocheh, alter kaker, meshugeh, farkakteh, sheyneh, keneynehoreh, shvants, roytkop, sheygets, oysgedarteh, kvelled, meshugener, shmeckel stuff and parrot sex in between?

It hooks you and reflects the force of Yiddish for Pirates, which all flies out of that funny premise and the parrot narrator.  We don’t expect perfect grammar.  Whole sentences. Words that we should recognize.  Or even word-like sounds.  We accept candor and cover-ups equally.  It sets the stage for unconstrained and bold story telling.  

So my lesson here is that when feathered, you can be unfettered – and be more entertaining in book writing and book readings.

I will think about this a lot when I try to write future fiction, and maybe, I should buy a parrot costume and practice thrusting motions for my next fub.

Writing Exercise
Recount a 17th century expedition up the Ottawa River through the mouth of a voyageur’s edgy pet beaver Fub - throw in some aboriginal science fiction. (Here is my shot at it).