May 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

In 1999, twenty-nine-year-old Nathan Englander published his first collection of short fiction. The stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges -- which focus primarily on Orthodox Jews -- are knockouts across the board, and the book deservedly emerged as one of the best-selling and most respected collections of the decade.

The term “much anticipated” is overused, but in Englander’s case it’s an apt description of his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. The publicity from Knopf notes that he has drawn comparisons to such greats as Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Englander is that rare exception for whom the lofty comparisons are legitimate. If history deals him the hand he deserves, his books will be read and deconstructed alongside the best.

The Ministry of Special Cases takes place in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s, at the start of the Argentine Dirty War. Centered on the family of dubious patriarch, Kaddish Poznan, the book has two distinct parts. The first focuses on Kaddish himself, well-known in his community as an hijo de puta -- son of a whore. Reared in a now-defunct, renegade synagogue run by pimps and prostitutes, Kaddish comes by his scheming instincts naturally. His latest “job” involves sneaking into the walled-off cemetery for the dishonored Jewish dead and erasing headstones with hammer and chisel, thus severing any connection between the now respectable survivors and their unsavory parentage.

This disavowal of history is a vital theme in Englander’s book and one that is treated with both good humor and gravity throughout. In one instance, a plastic surgeon, unable to pay for the service of having his father’s name chipped away from his tombstone, trades Kaddish two nose jobs as compensation: one for Kaddish and one for his wife, Lillian. The shedding of that physical aspect of their heritage produces the desired result for Kaddish, but the outcome for Lillian, the victim of an inexperienced medical student, is truly disastrous, first exaggerating the problem, and later resulting in a bizarre medical emergency. It is a point Englander makes again and again: those who run from history and tradition are setting themselves up for a very real vengeance.

The second part of the story focuses on Lillian and Kaddish’s teenage son, Pato. For no clear reason, he has been taken by the police and swallowed whole into an impenetrable bureaucracy. There is no record of Pato’s arrest and no way for Lillian and Kaddish to seek him out. Suddenly, he is one of the Dirty War’s “disappeared” -- those kidnapped and possibly tortured and killed on the apparent grounds of being political dissidents.

Unlike Kaddish’s customers in the first half of the book who are trying to shake off their histories, Pato’s past is stolen outright. No official will acknowledge his existence, let alone aid in his recovery.

Pato’s disappearance threatens to destroy his parents: Lillian, who loves him more than anything, and Kaddish, who could never make peace with his son, least of all in their final moments together.

Much of the novel chronicles Lillian’s unrelenting attempts to locate her son. Those scenes in which she executes her various strategies are among the most agonizing I’ve seen in print. As Kaddish tries to figure out how to carry out a funeral without a corpse, Lillian spends their entire savings bribing anyone who might have information about where Pato is being held. To his credit, Englander creates such empathy for his characters that both seem equally reasonable.

The Ministry of Special Cases stands as one of the most intelligently written, thoughtfully constructed, and downright honest books I’ve read in years. Though I’m loath to use the phrase, it’s not a stretch to say that Englander has produced a work of genuine importance. Literature is almost never this good.

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
Knopf
ISBN: 0375404937
352 Pages