Friday, February 13, 2009

Disappearing Names

Nathan Englander's first book, the short story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”, contained stories that reflected his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. So I was expecting that his first novel – The Ministry of Special Cases would continue in this vein. “Write about what you know” - isn't that the standard advice for young writers? And this novel's main characters are indeed Jewish. But the location is not contemporary New York but Buenos Aires in 1976 during Argentina's 'dirty war'. This is not a book that gives you a realistic documentary-style vision of this time and place. It's more like a fable. In a weird way it reminded me of the imaginary world that Michael Chabon created in “The Yiddish Policemen's Union ”.

The main character is Kaddish Poznan. He's the son of a whore, and was named by a rabbi after the Jewish prayer of mourning. And his profession, if you can call it that, reflects his outsider’s status . In the dead of night he chisels names off tombstones. These tombstones are in a Jewish cemetery, in a section where only the outcasts were buried – prostitutes, pimps, gangsters and other unsavory characters. The descendants of these long dead miscreants have moved up the social ladder and in order to protect their reputations they pay Kaddish to expunge their pasts. If they're short on cash his clients pay with services in kind, like the plastic surgeon who pays his bill by giving Kaddish and his wife Lillian nose jobs. There's plenty of dark humor like this early in the book, but then the 'dirty war' reaches the Poznans. Their son Pato is 'disappeared', and both parents try in different ways to find him. This leads them to the Ministry of Special Cases, a nightmarish government agency right out of Kafka or Orwell.

Englander is an impressive writer. He has a wonderful narrative voice, lyrical at times but never showy or sentimental. And his dark humor colors even the most harrowing scenes. Kaddish is a memorable character, struggling in his roles as father and husband, battling back against forces beyond his control. But I have to warn you – this story is beautifully told, but it is a sad, even heartbreaking, story.

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