Noth­ing the Same, Every­thing Haunt­ed: The Bal­lad of Motl the Cowboy

Gary Bar­win

  • Review
By – September 13, 2021

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.

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