Bingo Square: Cannonballer Says!
I saw lumenatrix’s review of this one, and was immediately intrigued. Jewish pirates during the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus? A five-hundred-year old parrot narrator? A gorgeous cover? Yes, please! Or to quote the narrator, a story about, “Pirates. Parrots. Jews. Jewels. The Inquisition. Gefilte fish. Gold. A Girl.”
While I quite enjoyed this one, I also feel like I approached it in the wrong way. I was so excited about the whole Jewish pirate thing that I may have raced through the earlier parts of the book to get to the pirating – Moishe doesn’t become captain of the pirate ship until two thirds of the way through, and unfortunately, Aaron, our parrot narrator, spends much of that final third discussing the decline of their fortunes rather than their rise and success. In fact, the last third was my least favorite part since it focused too much on the quest for El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth for me. What can I say, I wanted a happy ending, and this novel shows alliances and friendships develop and crumble, people come and go throughout its entirety. Every time it looks like someone might find some peace or happiness, the opportunity ends up being a false hope or it is taken away.
Additionally, the language is absolutely something to savor – it is definitely an adventure novel and a page turner but counter-intuitively, one that should inspire the reader to slow down and linger over phrases and scenes. Aaron may be narrating events of five hundred years ago but he has clearly been watching modern movies since every once and a while he ascribes statements from popular movies to the people of the past. Some of my favorite examples of this included, “not all who wonder are lost,” and “we did not expect the Spanish or their Inquisition.”
While a lot of the novel has sly comedy and asides, the story also follows some dark and tragic events. Moishe is a Lithuanian Jew and faces prejudice wherever he goes. Spain is in the grips of the Inquisition, and Moishe witnesses firsthand the prejudice, the hatred and the violence of the Church. A few try to help and make a difference, but being 15th century Europe, it’s not as if the Jews of Spain have many safe havens to flee to – it’s just trading one type of persecution and bigotry for another, potentially less extreme version. Moishe also ends up on Columbus’s voyage to America, and is there when the friendly relations devolve into atrocities against the natives, all in pursuit of gold and greed.
At one point late in the novel, a character mentions that he petitioned the Spanish government to stop the mistreatment and abuse of the native born people on the islands. When asked what he suggested as a solution or alternative, the character said he had made a pitch for using slave labor from Africa for the work instead. It was such a perfect little detail to add. My reaction was basically a simultaneous face palm and “that sounds about right” comment in my head. It’s both sad and yet unfortunately realistic that someone could see injustice perpetrated against groups of people in a system, and yet propose a solution that would lead to just as much misery for a different group of people.
Going back to the language piece, I highlighted so many passages in this novel, many more than I usually do. Some were insightful statements about the oppression and the oppressed: “and, after a while, the words we spit in rage are the words of those we rail against.” Others, simply funny turns of phrase and word plays: “like all navigators of the time, he used dead reckoning. Appropriate, for as his crew reckoned, they’d be dead soon enough.” And then, of course, his description of Yiddish and also the novel title tie in since it is “the perfect language for pirates, its words raggletag plundered and refitted from other times and tongues.”
Hopefully, all those quotes help me make my point rather being annoying, but it is a beautifully written and lyrical adventure novel with just enough dash of comedy and joking to balance the truly dark subject matters the novel also explores. In ways, there is something rather reminiscent of The Princess Bride in the delivery and wit of the novel but with a more tragic backdrop.
Bingo Square: Cannonballer Says! (Also my second pirate themed novel for CBR10 Bingo after having not read anything pirate-related in ages)