The title of Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, 339 pages, $25) comes from a real Ministry of Special Cases in Argentina, constituted in the mid 1970s - a governmental rabbit's hole only Franz Kafka could appreciate. Lillian Poznan, a Jew in Argentina at a time when it was not good to be Jewish in Argentina, is searching for her son. He was probably taken by the ruling military junta - probably, because they had taken so many others. She realizes that, at some point, her boy was processed through this place, this Ministry of Special Something or Other, though the government will neither confirm nor deny they have anything to do with her child - they will not even acknowledge a son exists.
So she takes a number.
Englander captures the mundane hell of such bureaucracies: "She followed the others into the adjoining hall and found a place to sit among the fixed wooden benches and folding chairs. The clerks faced them from a row of desks on the far side of the room." A clerk calls out: "Nine."
She leans over, asks the man waiting next to her: "Do they stay open until they're done?" The man laughs, then he explains: No, the following morning, they begin again with No. 1. That's the easiest absurdity to swallow. She is sent down endless hallways to obtain documents that don't exist by clerks who say they never requested any document at all; she is promised cooperation, then turned back, over and over.
The Ministry (though a relatively minor part of the storyline) hovers over the plot as a monument to inefficiency and malignancy; mostly likely it was designed to be. Clergymen shake down the timid, the wrong prisoners are released from custody; when Lillian approaches a general who, at last, can shed light on her son's disappearance, he says: "I cannot undo what has not been done." Heavy with heartbreak, as if handing down a parable that had been told with the same fateful sadness for centuries and not decades, Englander writes: "In each telling it was as if her son had never been. The idea of absence had gathered its own fierce momentum."
Actually, add Kafka to the long list of literary ghosts perched on Englander's talented shoulders.
The Ministry of Special Cases is the anticipated debut novel by Englander, whose 1999 collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, put the then-29-year old at the fore of a wave of young Jewish-American writers who took their uneasy relationship with faith and history as their subjects - or at least, as their subtext. Neither as satiric as Gary Shteyngart (Russian Debutante's Handbook) nor as willing to experiment as Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated), Englander became the conjurer of the group - a priceless mimic of fabulists like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud and, in his plotting, surrealists like Franz Kafka.
He is a master of old rhythms, though so willing to imitate (at least for the time being, early in what looks like a long career), there's something schematic in his plotting, or worse, a slight impersonal chill in his voice that scrapes against the anguish of his subject, at least here. The Argentina of Ministry, for instance, is curiously lacking in detail and local flavor - it could be anywhere Jews are meant to wonder what it means to be Jewish. Which very well might be the point of such a fable, but Argentina in the mid '70s, as Englander harrowingly hints, was not any place. It doesn't exist out of time, as, arguably, fables tend to exist.
Still, admire the ambition.
Englander is marrying the timeless (ruthless totalitarian regimes, which are evergreen) to the "Dirty War" waged in Argentina, starting in 1976 when a junta overthrew Isabel Peron and then, wasting no time, declared a paranoid campaign against intellectuals, activists, Jews - of the estimated 30,000 Argentines who were "disappeared" by authorities, and never found again, at least 15 percent were Jewish.
Which brings us to Kaddish Poznan, the father of the missing boy - a man whose very name must bear Englander's themes of memory, loss, and mourning.
Kaddish is typically a Jewish prayer for the departed, a pledge to those left behind. Kaddish, the man, as if his name wasn't heavy-handed enough, is placed in the anguished position of not having a son to mourn, since the local rabbi will not declare the boy dead, and since the Ministry will not acknowledge that the son was alive to begin with, and so on. This is punishment, a literal deus ex machina: When his son vanished, Kaddish was already working overtime to defile his heritage. When the new government is installed and marked backgrounds lead to kidnappings, Argentine middle-class families are desperate to erase any names linking them to Judaism - so they hire Kaddish.
He is paid to sneak into cemeteries with a chisel and chip Jewish names from the gravestones of dead prostitutes and pimps - the double shame being that Kaddish is, secretly, hijo de puta.
Meaning, son of a whore.
Whacking away with no less restraint, however, is Englander, whose themes, you've probably gathered, are pounded tirelessly. For this reason, it is possible to be mesmerized by the plot of Ministry of Special Cases - and certainly dazzled by Englander's virtuosity - and still feel at a nagging remove from its impact. But it's not an impossible distance. Such broad, larger-than-life telling gives the story of Lillian and Kaddish a mythic dignity these people would not get in life. In life, they would be parents of a kid nobody wants to find because everyone else is too busy staying out of the way themselves. "It's like standing in the ocean and facing the beach," Lillian thinks aloud. "It's up to you to know what's behind you."
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.