“Tragedy is always a hair’s breadth away from farce and ridiculousness and the unbelievable,” the prize-winning Canadian poet, novelist and composer Gary Barwin has observed. Barwin’s well-regarded Yiddish for Pirates won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for fiction in 2016. In his new novel, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, Barwin applies this Jewish ethos onto a wildly comic, punning-filled, picaresque Holocaust narrative. How can Holocaust stories be re-imagined in comic, indeed antic, tones? They can, for Barwin, if readers embrace the balm of humor, its ability to salve the often murderous hurts of Jewish history.
The protagonist in Nothing the Same is Motl, a Lithuanian Jew on the run from the Nazis. Narrated by Motl’s granddaughter in 1984, the novel captures Motl’s journeys across Eastern Europe during World War II. Living in a Lithuanian village about to be ransacked by the Nazis, Motl discovers that Hitler and his racist hordes love cowboy novels. So, in order to avoid a deadly fate, Motl assumes the identity of “a new kind of cowboy, a new man in an old world.”
As a mode of survival, and perhaps revenge, Motl channels Western idioms, and becomes a self-styled, self-invented “wandering cowboy” a “boychick cowpoke” with a faithful horse named “Theodore Herzl,” seeking “to outride the sorrows of the world.” The fantastic plot of Nothing the Same (which includes Motl performing in a circus spectacle with Himmler himself in the audience) is a testament to Barwin’s gifts of comic invention.
Barwin’s evocation of Motl is even more compelling in his role as witness, a survivor and vessel of Jewish memory. Barwin’s Motl blends a Quixote-like heroism in his quest for his “bashert” Esther, whose story and fate reveals the unspeakable horror of the Nazis’ evil. A professional mourner, a deep-feeling Jewish witness, Motl chants fragments of the Kaddish for the numerous Jewish dead he encounters on his journey. Motl also possesses a lyrical imagination. Observing the victims of a Nazi pogrom, he envisions “Torah scrolls… strewn about like hallway carpets. The dead or wounded on top or beneath, nightmare bedsheets of words.” Torah scrolls as shrouds, the sacred Jewish text embalming, comfort the murdered.
For all the antic punning and wit in Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, Barwin is deadly serious in his reimagining the legacy of the Holocaust. The comedy may dull the pain of Jewish history, but the hurt and the horror of Jewish memory remain.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.