The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

July 29, 2011

Nathan Englander’s first book, a collection of stories titled For the Relief of Unbearable Urges—unusual both in concept and in quality—got big advances, excellent reviews, a place on bestseller lists and translations into a dozen languages. Englander, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community in New York, moved to Jerusalem, perversely, to lead a secular life.

He’s a dedicated writer: “What matters is hard work, that’s it. Parties don’t help any. Being seen isn’t going to do much for your work.” Excessive praise, which he has had the good fortune to suffer in abundance,  he describes as like a wedding present: deserving of a syrupy thank-you note, but “well, it gets in the way of the vacuuming.”

During the 10 years it took to write The Ministry of Special Cases, his first novel, his lifestyle was devotional; he did nothing but work on the book and engage in serially monogamous sports: running, then swimming, then biking, then yoga.

The Ministry opens in Argentina, 1976, at the start of the Dirty War, with a father and son in a graveyard at night, tasked with the scurrilous business of erasing a name from a tombstone. The father, Kaddish Poznan, the proud son of an indeterminate father and a Buenos Aires prostitute, affectionately refers to his teenaged son Pato as an hijo de hijo deputa (the son of the son of a whore). Kaddish received his name when a rabbi summoned by his mother to save her baby son from death pronounced, “Let his name be Kaddish to ward off the angel of death. A trick and a blessing. Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned.”

The graves of the Jewish prostitutes and pimps of Buenos Aires have been sequestered behind a wall in the Jewish cemetery. Kaddish makes a living erasing the names from tombstones for heirs who have made it to the respectable side. “Which man is better off,’’ one of his clients asks, “the one without a future or the one without a past?”

The son, Pato, is a hotheaded, idealistic, pot-smoking student of sociology and history. In a pivotal scene, after the family of three barely makes it through a military roadblock because Pato has forgotten his identity card, the son returns his father’s anger with such excess that his father flees weeping from the car, thus setting in motion a series of events that lead to Pato becoming one of Argentina’s disappeared.

In the rest of the novel, Kaddish and his wife Lillian diverge in their efforts to recover their son. Lillian embarks on an endless round of visits to Argentine bureaucracy, encounters that are both Kafkaesque and Pinteresque as power is used to replace truth with lies, and make the innocent feel both guilty and helpless.

Kaddish turns to the world he knows, the underworld of Buenos Aires. In a haunting and powerful scene, Kaddish meets a man called the navigator at a jetty on the polluted river Plata. When Kaddish questions the navigator’s plausibility, he receives this response: “The government sees me as a treasure. I’m the man who tells their secret and out of whose mouth it sounds like a lie.” He adds, “A guilty man can’t get himself killed in this town. Only the innocent need to watch out.”

Englander’s narrative voice is one of the most compelling aspects of this novel. He writes in the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick and Franz Kafka (and I would say not that of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow). The language has a pithy, interrogative rhythm and is plump with aphoristic gems. “After 52 years in that city. Kaddish’s blindness was as sharp as hi sight. He’d learned not to see any trouble that didn’t see him first.”

Englander blends the diction of the storyteller and once-upon-a-time timelessness in a seamless continuum with the diction of realism. The character of Kaddish, who is slightly larger than life, belongs to the storyteller end of the spectrum. His actions are from a fairytale: cutting off the top of his son’s finger, dragging a bag of bones around, sleeping under synagogue benches, raiding a general’s mausoleum, bringing home two free nose jobs instead of groceries. One senses miracles that never quite appear.

The humour is black, veering to slapstick. Kaddish, waking under a synagogue bench, thinks to himself, “Should he have the good fortune of a dignified death and the foreknowledge that the end was near, Kaddish would ask for a coffin cut extra tight to his body. Let the worms find their own place to sleep.”

The character of Lillian, on the other hand, belongs to the historical realism end of the spectrum. She believes in the ultimate reality and sanity of Argentina’s social structure, stubbornly clinging to faith in bureaucrats and civil servants. Her great moment is her showdown with Feigenblum, president of Argentina’s United Jewish Congregations, when she realizes he is only placating her by adding her son’s name to a list of the missing. “You’ll enlist a great Jewish after-the-fact army to fight with all of hell’s fury over how it is to be remembered. . . . You work with them, Feigenblum. You channel the grand tradition of Jewish diplomacy: Never acknowledge catastrophe until it’s done.”

The Ministry of Special Cases is Shakespearean in the way tragedy unfolds from the flaws of its characters enacted on the stage of history, in its bawdy, graveyard humour and in the way formalized language is blended with the vulgar.

This novel has stayed with me, a rare occurrence in the multimedia deluge of 21st-century life. Englander’s ascetic 10 years have born fine and lasting fruit.

Claudia Casper’s novel The Continuation of Love By Other Means revisits Argentina’s Dirty War.

The Ministry of Special Cases
By: 
Nathan Englander
Publisher: 
Knopf, 339 pages, $32