The Ministry of Special Cases

Alfred A. Knopf  2007

 
In his long-awaited follow-up to the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander has written a strange and moving novel about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires during the country’s “Dirty War.” By turns comic, grotesque and tragic, The Ministry of Special Cases tells the story of the Poznan family—the father Kaddish, son of a prostitute, who is hired by wealthy Argentine Jews to erase the gravestones of their criminal ancestors; the mother Lillian, from a more wholesome family, who keeps hoping Kaddish will leave his job for something more respectable; and the son Pato, sweet and naive, who becomes a “disappeared” victim of Argentina’s paranoid military junta.

Kaddish and Lillian’s quest to find Pato takes them to police stations, cemeteries, a plastic surgeon’s office, and the fictional but terrifyingly real Ministry of Special Cases. Kaddish, with one foot in the underworld, is always pressing for an off-thebooks approach. Lillian, more comfortable with the world of laws and protocol, tries to work the system. These conflicting choices echo the decisions of persecuted Jews over many centuries and continents, and in Englander’s voice reflect both the metaphysical absurdity of Kafka and the political absurdity of Gogol. 

Displaying Englander’s typical wit, The Ministry of Special Cases is full of unexpected scenes, many of them offering strange twists on Jewish identity. For instance, Kaddish fears his son will be arrested merely for having political books in his bedroom, so he burns them in the bathtub—not a prelude to burning bodies, as in Nazi Germany, but an attempt to stop it. Englander also gives Lillian and Kaddish perfect nose jobs. But instead of these beautiful new noses being a repudiation of the past—the usual goal— Lillian and Kaddish realize they no longer look anything like their missing son. They have symbolically erased both the connection to their past and to their future. 

There is not much grace for the Poznan family, except for small moments. When the uneducated Kaddish, already at odds with his son about so much, finally starts burning his books, he “found it calming, this nice warm light, blue and then yellow. He enjoyed this window of time when he’d done what needed doing, and there wasn’t yet any harm. He’d never expected a happy life, only moments of joy to carry him through. This he would cherish. For one perfect moment the book was on fire and did not burn.” 

The image of these books, as well as Kaddish and Lillian’s noses, disappearing into thin air offers a key to understanding one of the book’s main arguments—how easy it is for lives, especially Jewish lives, to be erased.


Interview

Daniel Schifrin, a columnist for New York Jewish Week, and currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, spoke with Nathan Englander about his new book, The Ministry of Special Cases.

DS: The Ministry of Special Cases, your first novel, is propelled by a middleaged couple searching for their “disappeared” son during Argentina’s dirty war. The father, Kaddish, makes a lot of noise and tries to go around the system. The mother, Lillian, is quieter, and wants to work with the government. These decisions seem to echo larger Jewish choices about whether or not to rock the boat when there is trouble in the societies in which they have lived. 
NE: “I’m interested in the kinds of decisions Jews are forced to make as a community. There’s always this epic tension over whether it’s better to be confrontational or diplomatic. If you want historical examples, I’d say Purim and Channukah cover the two poles. The story of Purim is one of finesse and Chanukkah is about conflict. And as much as Kaddish and Lillian may embody the two sides of the argument, for me the book is less about how a community deals with the outside world in times of crisis than about how a community deals with itself. The novel is very much about the role of the outsider. And I think you’d agree, Kaddish can’t be any further on the outside.” 

DS: Your first book, the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a staple of Jewish book groups and library collections around the world. Had you expected to have a strong Jewish focus when you started the novel? 
NE:
“There are a lot of Jewish elements in the book. At first I thought there wouldn’t be a dominant Jewish thread (despite the fact that the Poznans were Jewish), and in that way the novel would be a departure from the stories. It’s hard to explain, but I often feel like people want me to objectify my characters, to see them as Jewish in a way that I find limiting, and I was responding to that. In the end, my characters are my characters. And once I understood what was happening, the book really began to take shape. The stories, in the end, were about the divide between religious and secular, the tension between those two worlds.The novel is very much about community and identity. As the story developed, the Jewish themes really made their way in. As for my initial intentions, they don’t much matter. A novel eventually makes its own demands.” 

DS: Would you agree that The Ministry of Special Cases is, in some deep way, a moral and political novel? 
NE:
“That’s part of what drew me to Argentina as a setting—the pervasive role that politics plays in daily life. Things may be different now, but when I was growing up in America, politics didn’t really affect us. My friends don’t say ‘My life was never the same after Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.’ It’s very different for Argentines. And it’s very different for Israelis. I lived in Jerusalem, and it’s a real struggle to live the life of an individual when history and politics, when questions of life and death, are part of your day to day. And that’s why I focus on one family in the novel. It’s about living the life of a family when that also becomes the life of a nation.” 

DS: How was writing a novel different than working on stories? 
NE:
“There can be a perfect short story that rests, more or less, on story alone. A big fat novel has to be about character. The center of gravity is different. I say this as if it’s obvious, though it took me the better part of a decade to learn.” 

DS: How did you do the research for the book? 
NE:
“I work in reverse. I have a great fear of authority, and knowing too much historical detail would be limiting for me. Once I have the idea, and whatever random and disparate facts that I need, I set to work. As for accuracy, it sounds a bit ‘sincere,’ but I do believe if you spend enough time dreaming it, and writing it, if you put enough time into it, what you imagine will be true. I want things to form as they need to for the novel. And then, when it’s done, I reverse engineer it. Anything that the novel demands, whether it’s inventing a ministry or a cemetery, is, by virtue of its necessity, true. And then anything else— and I mean anything, I become a true madman about it—I check, and re-check, and fix. So I’ll invent a Ministry of Special Cases and build a novel around it, but when Kaddish brings home ice cream for his family, the flavors better be right.




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