Nearly a decade ago Nathan Englander rocked the literary world with a debut short story collection that gave life to longing through a set of Orthodox Jewish characters yearning for lost love, youth, heritage or freedom.
So it’s not surprising that in his highly anticipated debut novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” Englander again tackles longing, this time in perhaps its most dramatic terms: the agony of searching for a missing person.
Again the main characters are Jewish but their Jewishness is the lens through which to examine the vanishing act of 1970s Argentina, whose residents were tortured and terrified by a military junta under which some 30,000 people, many of them Jews, were made to disappear.
“The Ministry of Special Cases” grapples with “issues of identity and truths and history,” Englander recently told JTA, sitting against a sidewall at a Hungarian bakery in the nosebleed section of the Upper West Side.
The cafe is spitting distance from Englander’s apartment and, although it lacks outlets and good lighting, is the author’s haunt, where many pages of his novel were written.
Illustrating the intense fear spread by the Argentine government’s so-called “Dirty War” against its own people, Englander portrays characters eager to erase their eyebrow-raising past and that of their ancestors while others scramble to make the disappeared re-emerge.
Personifying the mix is the ironically named character Kaddish Poznan, a hopeful
blunderer who is hired to eradicate the names on headstones belonging to Argentina’s Jewish pimps and whores by children who want to conceal their disreputable family trees.
Poznan and his wife, Lillian, who bears the brunt of his schemes, see their lives and relationship unravel when their teenage son, Pato, is captured by the government. They each respond with divergent narratives and strategies to settle what cannot be settled.
Along the way even truth disappears. Government ministries deceive them, continually redirecting the frantic couple to bureaus without answers or, worse, with the wrong ones. Even the Jewish community is complicit in the runaround, its president boasting of his diplomatic achievement in getting the government to admit there are accusations against it.
A plot twist involving unfortunate nose jobs prompted some disparaging reviews that suggest such comedic absurdity is out of place. Others, however, gave the book tremendous endorsements.
Intense scrutiny of all sorts was to be expected, of course, given to the likes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud following the release of Englander’s short-story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.”
The media attention surrounding the collection focused on Englander’s strictly Orthodox upbringing, which he abandoned to become what he calls a “lapsed atheist.” His only remnants of belief appear to be the fact that he is “wildly superstitious.” Englander says the Jewish bent to his work is as intrinsic as it is irrelevant.
“Our brains are our brains,” he says, lamenting that there is “so much pressure for me to be this Jewish author.”
“It’s almost like asking why a French writer writes about French people,” Englander adds.
People are trained in certain beliefs and directed onto certain pathways, which Englander explains is why he moved to Israel for several years, “not for love of place” but “to be a hippie.” It is New York, however, where he claims to thrive.
Still, living in Israel laid the groundwork for his new novel, a project he says consumed him for nearly a decade and whose subject was “not a choice” but a “series of obsessions.”
It was in Israel where he observed a society whose members must juggle their personal and professional aspirations alongside the sacrifices they make to their country and “how hard that balance is.”
Pondering that problem prompted him to ask: “What right do you have to want to be an individual?”
In examining such questions, Englander uses his book to mine profound themes of memory, identity and the ways that lives are built and broken.
“I spend a lot of time discussing the Dirty War elements of the novel,” Englander wrote in an e-mail. “But for me it’s also really a book about fathers and sons about the complexities of that relationship, and about family and community. And while I think the setting of the book is the right setting for this story in a thousand different ways, I think its very distance from my own experience allows me to get closer in other ways.”