The Min­istry of Spe­cial Cases

  • Review
By – December 8, 2011
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.


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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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.

Daniel Schifrin for­mer Direc­tor of Lit­er­ary Pro­grams for the Nation­al Foun­da­tion for Jew­ish Cul­ture, is a vis­it­ing schol­ar at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. He writes a col­umn on arts & cul­ture for New York Jew­ish Week, and his essays and reviews appear in the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, the Los Ange­les Times, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He is the edi­tor of Across the Great Divide: The Select­ed Essays of Abra­ham Coral­nik, and has just com­plet­ed his first novel.

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