nathan book 88 298.
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The Ministry of Special Cases
By Nathan Englander
Alfred A. Knopf
339 pages; $25
What happens inside the anxious mind of a 28-year-old writer when his first short story collection unexpectedly receives extraordinary acclaim comparing him to the literary masters Bellow, Malamud and Singer? How does he begin to prepare himself for a worthy second act; one that will convince critics, readers and most importantly himself that he is indeed worthy of such attention? The internal pressure brewing inside Nathan Englander must have been intense; perhaps that is why it has taken him 10 years to bring forth his first full-length novel.
His first book of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, won the PEN/Malamud Award and was translated into over a dozen languages while appearing on best-seller lists throughout the US. His new work is set in Buenos Aires at the start of Argentina's Dirty War in 1976. It seems at times an unusual and uncomfortable topic for an author who spent his early years growing up in an Orthodox home in Long Island, New York.
There are flourishes in this novel of Englander's earlier brilliance, glimpses of the irreverent edgy voice we recall from his first work, but much that is missing also. It is almost as if he allowed himself to become eclipsed by his own press clippings, and in this novel the reader sometimes senses a struggle for greatness rather than greatness itself.
Englander writes about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires - Kaddish Poznan, his wife Lillian and their beloved son Pato, who has become the unwilling repository of whatever remnants of hope are left between husband and wife. It is not that Kaddish no longer loves his wife, he does; but they are a tired and awkward family, ill at ease with one another. When Lillian first met Kaddish as a young girl, her parents had tried desperately to thwart their romance, convince she could do far better. But Lillian persisted, certain she was madly in love with the man she imagined he could become. That man never materialized; Kaddish remained a perennial failure, stigmatized by the well-known knowledge that he was the son of a woman who had sold her body to feed her children.
Argentina was once again in the throes of a dangerous military coup, and the Jewish population was being targeted. There were violent attacks on the streets, people being abducted and tortured and a sense of panic everywhere. Kaddish made his living illicitly by demolishing tombstones in the Jewish graveyards of Buenos Aires. He was paid to do this by wealthy and successful Jews who were fearful and ashamed of their ties to long-deceased relatives who had been forced to engage in dubious activities in order to survive. With things so out of control, these Jews feared that any connection to their past could bring harm upon them or their children.
Kaddish's son is embarrassed by his father's willingness to participate in such insanity. Pato is full of youthful idealism and naivet ; he is inquisitive, intelligent and rebellious. An active college student who loves to read, he possesses books that his father fears are now dangerous to possess. When Kaddish begs him to destroy his books, he shouts back at him "I won't live your life, and I don't understand why you are living theirs." His father can only meekly reply, "It doesn't matter if anyone's really coming or not. It's your lot as a Jew to fear it. We are bred for the waiting."
Pato is soon plucked from the streets, leaving his parents bereft and caught in a spiraling frenzy of madness trying to get him back in a country that won't admit it has abducted him.
Jewish horror stories are everywhere. What makes them distinctive is the unique set of circumstances that allow Jews to be mercilessly targeted by the powers that be, the compilation of forces that has permitted Jews throughout history to be repeatedly manufactured over and over again in the world's collective imagination as greedy capitalists, heartless communists, troublemakers, elitists, undignified, inhumane and, perhaps most importantly, unnecessary, dangerous and expendable.
Englander's main failing in this novel lay here. Readers unfamiliar with the specific religious, political and military situation in Argentina during the 1970s will not find the historical depth and texture interwoven with his prose, which sometimes seems overly spare, almost like a nightmarish fable. Attempting to understand the complexity of what was occurring prompted me to do my own research before returning to his narrative to enmesh myself once again within the confines of his troubled Jewish family.
In Englander's story, Kaddish and Lillian attempt to go to the government to find Pato, only to be repeatedly sent home degraded by hostile officials who threaten them. There is a persistent undercurrent here, reflected also in his earlier book, that seems to be almost a subconscious call to arms, a warning regarding the perils of acquiescence.
Ironically, it is only after their son is stolen that Kaddish and Lillian begin to confront one another and the world that has destroyed them. They begin to embrace the life their son had tried to create. They start to read his books, talk to his friends and think about who he was. In a twisted sense, they become more alive after his disappearance, finally recognizing what not only what has been taken from them but what they willingly gave away before his departure - a connection to their past, their essence, their Jewishness.
Englander, now 37, recently said in an interview that "I don't do anything with organized religion. I'm totally secular. I'd call myself an atheist if I wasn't so afraid of going to hell." But his writing bespeaks a more complex truth. His words swirl continuously around the notion of what it means to be a Jew. That is always the focal point, whether it be about longing for Judaism, losing it, learning it or trying to transform it.
In Englander's collection of short stories, there is a marvelous one about a Protestant who gets into a taxicab in Manhattan and understands instantly that he is a Jew, that his life up to this point has been a fake, inauthentic and meaningless. He embarks on a journey to become the best Jew he can be. He begins studying, praying, keeping kosher and tries to convince his bewildered Protestant wife and his psychiatrist that he isn't insane; he has simply found God and his true self; he has never been happier; he possesses a Jewish soul.
It seems the characters in Englander's brave new novel are on a similar journey.
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