The Ministry of Special Cases
By Nathan Englander
352 pages. Knopf. $25.
In an extraordinary debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander demonstrated a knack for cooking up narrative premises, whether realistic or fantastic, that were spiced with symbolic or religious intensity. “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” for one example, concerns a non-Jew, Charles, who suddenly, inexplicably, realizes that he is “the bearer of a Jewish soul.” Englander handles this supernatural conceit adroitly, keeping it firmly grounded in the tactile details of Charles’ life (should he, or should he not, eat the creamed chicken?), so that ultimately the story manages to speak to the thorniest dilemmas of Jewish identity in our time. What, after all, does it mean to possess a Jewish soul?
Given his previous works’ settings, it may surprise Englander’s fans that his highly anticipated first novel takes place not among the Hasids of New York or Jerusalem, but during Argentina’s Dirty War, when thousands of activists and students were “disappeared”—abducted, tortured, and often killed by a brutal government, without legal process or justification. Englander’s goal, though, as in the best of his stories, is to mobilize this history for the sake of the mythic and philosophic resonance of his fiction; the result, The Ministry of Special Cases, manifests both the author’s prodigious abilities and the difficulties he faced in adapting his talents to the longer form.
The novel centers on a family of Buenos Aires Jews, and each of its characters and incidents is deeply invested with symbolic value. The book’s protagonist, Kaddish Poznan, not only has a given name freighted with significance, but also a pedigree that resonates with the sad history of Argentine Jewry: he is an “hijo de puta,” the son of a whore. It was once an open secret that Buenos Aires was the world capital of Jewish prostitution. (In a classic 1909 Sholem Aleichem story, the joke is that the clueless narrator can’t figure out what the titular “Man from Buenos Aires” deals in; the story’s readers knew.) In recent years, Nora Glickman, Isabel Vincent, and others have reconstructed this sordid chapter of the past—though many respectable Jews, in Argentina and elsewhere, would probably still prefer to forget it.
That’s where Kaddish comes in. In ‘70s Buenos Aires, he earns a meager living by ensuring that the past stays forgotten: upon request, he erases names from tombstones in the cemetery of the Society for the Benevolent Self—the defunct fraternal organization of the pimps—and even unstitches a donor’s name from the covering of the ark in the abandoned prostitutes’ synagogue. What sort of person would pay to have his ancestor’s tombstone defaced? Dr. Mazursky, for one; a top plastic surgeon, he hires Kaddish to prevent anyone from discovering that his father was a gangster known, to friends and at his grave, as “Toothless” Mazursky.
Kaddish pursues this grimy vocation despite the fact that his wife, Lillian, earns decent money as an insurance agent, and he even drags his teenaged son, Pato, along on his jobs. The family squabbles and struggles like any other, but soon Jorge Rafael Videla stages his military coup and their lives become truly dangerous. This grim period may be familiar to some readers from Jacobo Timerman’s searing memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, or Alicia Portnoy’s The Little School, both of which limn the experience of detainment and torture after being disappeared.
Not far into Englander’s novel, policemen drag the teenage Pato away to a similar fate. To get him back, his parents must convince various government functionaries, like those at the terrifying Ministry of Special Cases, that Pato indeed exists and was arrested. With confirmation, they could force the government, via habeas corpus, to produce their son and either try him for a crime or release him. In the meantime, Pato is a literal nonentity.
This summary should suggest the ways in which Englander pays homage to the literary masters: with his attention to the terrors of bureaucratic power, the author sets up camp in the heart of Kafka territory, and given the setting, one also detects hints of Jorge Luis Borges’ labyrinths. A further complication in the plot harks back to a classic tale by the Russian master, Nikolai Gogol, as the parents’ attempts to establish their son’s existence with photographs run up against a further obstacle, the fact that Pato doesn’t really look like them anymore. For just before tragedy struck, Kaddish and Lillian received free nose jobs in lieu of payment from Dr. Mazursky.
Even in Gogol’s story about a non-Jew, the loss of a nose is serious business; kal v’khomer, the disappearance of a Jewish nose poses tremendous problems. “The first time I ever enjoyed my own reflection was after Pato was born,” Lillian says, wistfully. “… From then on, when I looked in the mirror I saw myself and I saw him.” Now that Pato’s been disappeared and Lillian’s face has been fixed, she feels that “he’s gone from the mirror too. It is like murder, this nose.”
Three categories of forced disappearance structure this novel, then: the erasure of names, in Kaddish’s graveyard work; the erasure of noses, by the extraordinarily vigorous Argentine plastic surgery industry; and the erasure of people, by the military dictatorship. These motifs, interrelated through the experiences of the Poznans, provide opportunities for Englander and his characters to wax philosophic on themes central to Jewish thought, especially in the wake of the Holocaust and other catastrophes of the 20th century—memory and forgetting, presence and absence, trauma and mourning.
In other words, in one sense the novel is a virtuoso performance of precisely the facility that made Englander’s stories so remarkable: he seizes on a set of historical realities that also function as symbols invested with broad mythical and religious intensity. At its most lyrical moments, as in a brief passage where it confronts the ultimate fate of the disappeared, the novel succeeds remarkably on these terms.
Unfortunately, though, as the book layers symbol on top of symbol and emphasizes the resonances of each one, the exercise begins to feel more than a little heavy-handed. The narrative veers from believability, as characters appear motivated not by their psychologies, but according to whatever would be most symbolically appropriate.
As a fable of political horror, The Ministry has its attractions, but it fails to achieve the emotional intensity for which it strives. Many readers may appreciate the novel as a deftly constructed allegory, but others will find that despite the promise of the setting, the book’s characters never become anything more than mouthpieces for the author’s philosophic wanderings. Englander’s ability to marshal intense symbols is undeniable and impressive, and may one day allow him to write masterpieces of modern Jewish literature; so far, though, it has served him better in short stories than it has in the novel.