Gary Barwin's WWII-era novel Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted balances heavy subjects with hope and humour
Gary Barwin is a composer, multimedia artist and the author of more than two dozen books for adults and children in both poetry and prose. In short, Gary Barwin is a creator and his latest novel Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted is a creation unto itself.
Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted is a novel that explores genocide, persecution, colonialism and masculinity. In it we follow Motl, a middle-aged, poor, nerdy, Jewish man who had his testicles shot off as a youth in the First World War. He lives a quiet life at home with his shrewd and shrewish mom, losing himself in the masculine fantasy world of cowboy novels — novels equally loved by Hitler, whose troops are out to exterminate people like Motl.
He sets out on a quest for ultimate revenge against the Nazis and travels across war-ravaged Europe on a journey full of narrow escapes, the horrors of the Holocaust — and jokes.
Gary Barwin is based in Hamilton, Ont. He spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted.
When we enter the story, the Germans are about to arrive in Vilnius — and Motl is sitting in a barber's chair. He suddenly has an epiphany about what he's got to do. What is it that Motl realizes?
He has spent his life being passive and fantasizing about being a cowboy. He's dealing with the reality of not taking agency over his life. He's been avoiding anti-Semitism, which has been a presence in his life for decades. He fantasizes like Don Quixote: he's imagining being a knight; he's fantasizing about being a cowboy. He's imagining he's this tough guy who doesn't say much but who's brave and courageous. And finally, he decides it's actually time to do something and to seize the day, as it were.
He's imagining he's this tough guy who doesn't say much, who's brave and courageous. And finally, he decides it's actually time to do something and to seize the day as it were.
The Holocaust has started, there's all this death and destruction, and he decides that he should seize life — and in this case, 20 years after his testicles were shot off in the Swiss mountains.
He's going to try and create life in the face of all of this death, as one does, right?
- Gary Barwin's 'morning thought experiments' are helping him feel more connected while isolating at home
You chose Lithuania for the setting of your story. Why Lithuania?
I wanted to look into my family's background; all my grandparents came from Lithuania and they left before the war. Some of the terrible things that happened in the book happened to them. So my family is from there and I really wanted to look into my family's history.
My grandparents never spoke about it. Everybody had been killed: all of the parents, their brothers and sisters, everything. They were not able to speak about it, though it clearly informed their life. I wanted to understand what they were going through — and where I come from.
I think, like my character, I needed to face up to and look hard at what happened to my family.
The Holocaust in the Baltics and in Lithuania isn't known very much. We know a lot about death camps in Poland and other places, but we don't know so much about Lithuania and the way things happened there, both in terms of the complicity of Lithuanians and also just the way that the killing happened. It's all awful and unspeakable. But one has to look at that.
Like my character, I needed to face up to and look hard at what happened to my family.
The protagonist, Motl, is so wild and addresses a lot of what happens through humour. What are jokes doing among these calamities?
Humour does a lot of things. Humour serves to unpack, to help, and to give you a new way of looking at things. Often in sermons, rabbis will begin with a joke as a way of starting the conversation — as a way of pulling the carpet out from you so you can look at things in a new way. You need to use all the resources and all the technologies of storytelling and humanity that we have, including humour.
Humour is a way of unpacking it. And it's also a way not only for the reader, but for the people to somehow make it through.
I'm not making fun of it. Humour is a way of unpacking it. It's also a way, not only for the reader, but for the people to somehow make it through.
To me, humour gives them energy. It gives them agency. They're the ones who are somehow able to stand there and tell a joke. Sometimes people are perhaps scared that, by not being solemn, you're not giving it respect.
Actually, it's the opposite.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.