Channeling Kafka in Buenos Aires
The Ministry of Special Cases
By Nathan Englander
Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $25.
Nathan Englander’s new novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” begins on a dark night in a dangerous time:
Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another’s space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe. Kaddish led Pato through uneven rows over uneven ground on the Benevolent Self side. He cupped his hand over the eye of the flashlight to smother the light. His fingers glowed orange, red in between, as he ran his fist along the face of a stone.
They were searching for Hezzi Two-Blades’ grave, and finding it didn’t take long.
Reading these lines, I remembered first reading Englander seven years ago, when his short-story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” earned him all sorts of foreign descriptors: wunderkind, enfant terrible. Reading on, I became absorbed in a plot that would fit well in that earlier book, with its religious Jews brushing uncomfortably against secular realities.
It’s Buenos Aires, 1976, and Kaddish Poznan, son of a prostitute, earns money effacing the headstones of dead Jewish criminals whose children, striving for respectability in a post-Perón world, don’t want their family names visible in the disreputable graveyard. There is, you see, one graveyard for reputable dead Jews and, just over a wall, another for disreputable dead Jews: the pimps, whores and loan sharks of a defunct underworld.
Kaddish’s mother is buried on the wrong side of the wall, as is Bryna the Vagina, Coconut Burstein, Hayim-Moshe “One-Eye” Weiss and Shlomo the Pin. Kaddish was given his name by a rabbi who might have been his father, a customer of his mother. “Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned,” the rabbi said, explaining the name. And thus Kaddish’s vocation, in which he works intimately with the dead, a job that has fallen to him because, as a Jew who doesn’t avoid his ignominious heritage, he doesn’t mind being seen in the synagogue. The doctors and lawyers, lacking the courage of their own ambitions, pay Kaddish to chisel their parents’ names into oblivion.
The rabbi’s formulation, “the mourner instead of the mourned,” is doubly prophetic, for Kaddish soon loses Pato, who in addition to being his reluctant co-worker is the son who would say the Kaddish for Kaddish. Pato is a shambling, pot-smoking lad who, for the crime of reading books and looking vaguely subversive, gets disappeared by the security forces so active in Argentina in 1976. He’s abducted from the family apartment, right in front of his father. Pato hated his father and hated the family business, but Kaddish and the boy’s mother, Lillian, are despondent. Against all better judgment, they resolve to find their son.
What follows is obviously influenced by Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Everywhere Lillian turns, there is a mild clerk or a cold-hearted military man denying any knowledge that her son ever existed. Life is suddenly marked by a total absence of humanity, as if all hearts have stopped and gone cold: The head of the Jewish community will not help; Pato’s friends know nothing; no answers can be found. Kaddish and Lillian suffer a kind of social death. Lillian loses her job at an insurance agency. Their marriage unravels. Kaddish ends up sleeping in the pews of the abandoned hoodlums’ synagogue. He’s the only person who will enter, so nobody will find him there. But nobody even tries.
The animating ghost besides Kafka is Gogol, whose short story “The Nose” features a proboscis that leaves the face of its owner, a St. Petersburg bureaucrat, and soon outranks him. One of Kaddish’s clients is a plastic surgeon, Dr. Mazursky, who welshes on Kaddish’s fee and then offers, as interest on the money he owes, free nose jobs for all three Poznans. (They have big Jewish noses.) Pato, who like all good long-hairs loathes phoniness and pretension, will have nothing to do with this barter for his father’s despicable work. “The nose stays,” he tells his father. “It’s enough what this government forces on us already; we don’t need to volunteer to make ourselves look the same.” His parents take the deal, which is an extraordinary comment on Jewish shame: Kaddish is the only Jew in Buenos Aires who will admit to his mother’s being a whore, yet even he would trade up to a more Argentine nose. In the end, the joke — if one can call it that — is on the bereft Lillian, who longs for what she cannot have: to see her missing son in her face. “Murder,” Lillian said, her old nose gone, Pato missing from the mirror. “To change a face it is murder.” As in Gogol, the nose supersedes the man.
The confluence of indignities suggests that evil somehow is amplified when directed at Jews. Lillian has, by abandoning her nose, unwittingly conspired with the government to murder her son. Kaddish laments that the military has disappeared Pato, but really who is he, a professional disappearer, to complain? In fact, a society in which all people are forced by the hand of tyranny to hate themselves, to efface themselves, is one in which all have been turned into Jews — and yet, even among Jews the Jews seem to get the worst of it.
“The Ministry of Special Cases” is a provocative novel, deeply concerned with ideas, and it makes smooth use of history without feeling like a “historical novel,” the business flier’s best friend. It does not end happily, but it ends well. This novel does, however, lack the unique species of strangeness that makes Englander’s short stories unforgettable. “The Wig,” for example, feels otherworldly not because the wigs are made by an Orthodox Jewess, but because wigs are just plain creepy, the way mannequins are creepy. They both pretend to be alive. In “The Ministry of Special Cases,” the strangeness has become a kind of fantastic otherworldliness — a man named Kaddish, a long-gone race of Jewish criminals with strange names — but is inscribed a bit clumsily in the too-real world of Argentina’s Dirty War.
That clash of the real and surreal is intentional, of course, and it’s probably a fair portrayal of how it feels to live under a merciless government. But rather than being two strands always together, each inescapable, the moods tend to alternate so that one passage might be lyrical and dreamy, while another, brutal and hard-edged, feels lifted from a different book. This unevenness kept me from feeling close to the characters, because I was never sure whether they’re meant to be individuals or icons, like Kafka’s Josef K., who is a powerful symbol but a symbol nonetheless.
Kaddish and Lillian’s interior lives are limited, their actions determined by a singular goal: “Find my son.” They are deformed souls, what their government wants them to be. But if they are not particularly memorable, their predicament, as described in this sad, sad novel, is. Again and again, they go to the Ministry of Special Cases, where they learn that they’re not special and have no case. It ruins nothing to say that Pato never returns. If you thought he might, you haven’t read enough fiction about authoritarianism. You’d do well to start here.
Mark Oppenheimer lives in New Haven, Conn. He is the author of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).