The Ministry of Special Cases
Reviewed by Allegra Goodman
Young writers are often told to write about what they know. In his 1999 collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges , Nathan Englander spun the material of his orthodox Jewish background into marvelous fiction. But the real trick to writing about what you know is to make sure you know more as you mature. Englander's first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases , conjures a world far removed from "The Gilgul of Second Avenue." The novel is set in 1976 in Buenos Aires during Argentina's "dirty war." Kaddish Poznan, hijo de puta , son of a whore, earns a meager living defacing gravestones of Jewish whores and pimps whose more respectable children want to erase their immigrant parents' names and forget their shameful activities. Kaddish labors in the Jewish cemetery at night. His hardworking wife, Lillian, toils in an insurance agency by day, and their idealistic son, Pato, attends college, goes to concerts and smokes pot with his friends. When Pato is taken from home, Kaddish learns what it really means to erase identity, because no one in authority will admit Pato has been arrested. No one will even acknowledge that Pato existed. As Lillian and Kaddish attempt to penetrate the Ministry of Special Cases, Englander's novel takes on an epic quality in which Jewish parents descend into the underworld and journey through circles of hell.
Gogol, I.B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander's book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration. At times Englander's motifs seem forced. Kaddish, whose very name evokes the memory of the dead, chisels out the name of a plastic surgeon's disreputable father, and in lieu of cash receives nose jobs for himself and his wife. Lillian's nose job is at first unsuccessful, and her nose slides off her face. One form of defacement pays for another. Kaddish fights with his son in the cemetery and accidentally slices off the tip of Pato's finger. Attempting to erase a letter, Kaddish blights a digit. But the fight seems staged, Pato's presence unwarranted except for Englander's schema. Other scenes are haunting: Lillian confronting bureaucrats; Kaddish appealing to a rabbi to learn if it is possible for a Jew to have a funeral without a body; Kaddish picking an embarrassing embroidered name off the velvet curtain in front of the ark in the synagogue. When he picks off the gold thread, the name stands out even more prominently because the velvet underneath the embroidery is unfaded, darker than the rest of the fabric. Englander writes with increasing power and authority in the second half of his book; he probes deeper and deeper, looking at what absence means, reading the shadow letters on history's curtain. (May)
Allegra Goodman is the author of five books, including Intuition.