Humor meets tradgedy in Englander’s latest work
It’s especially difficult to talk about Nathan Englander’s debut novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” without mentioning his collection of short stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” not because of the rumors of a six-figure advance, or because of the numerous awards that it has received—the PEN/Malamud Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and two appearances in the “Best American Short Stories” series—or because it recognized Englander as the heir to Malamud-Singer-Kafka throne.
In the first two stories of the collection, “The Twenty-seventh Man” and “The Tumblers,” Englander writes about a Jewish community in the middle of the Holocaust, as they struggle to live.
In “In This Way We Are Wise,” the final story of the collection, Englander draws upon his personal experience of living in Israel as the narrator of the story copes with surviving a terrorist attack. Knowing that those stories established Englander as a writer with an all-too-real understanding of the past and present condition of Jewish people, it’s easy to understand why “The Ministry of Special Cases” takes place during the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War, an era in which the government violated many human rights by kidnapping and torturing its citizens.
At the center of the story is Kaddish Poznan, an “hijo de puta” who earns a living by vandalizing graves at night. Lillian, his wife, works at an insurance agency where business is booming due to Argentineans’ increasing paranoia. Pato, Kaddish and Lillian’s son, is like many 19-year-old college students: bookish and bright, into music and drugs, and resentful of his father. Fearful that the government might take away his son, Kaddish tries to show Pato the value of his illegal work only to fail by chopping off a piece of Pato’s finger; each attempt to straighten out Pato is met with failure.
One evening, after coming home from jail, Pato is kidnapped by five men. In order to get back Pato, both Kaddish and Lillian are forced to plead their case to the Ministry of Special Cases, only to have to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops. As the time since Pato’s disappearance becomes longer and longer, Kaddish and Lillian drift further and further apart from each other as one comes to realize that Pato is dead and the other that he’s alive.
Though it might seem otherwise, “The Ministry of Special Cases” is a funny novel. Englander writes of spoiled nose jobs and botched kidnappings like they were the punchlines to Yiddish jokes. This is where Englander’s talent shows: his ability to combine humor and tragedy in his stories to reveal a greater truth.
“It took madness, he felt, for two conflicting realities to exist at once,” Englander writes. “Everything and it’s opposite. As in the case of a son that is both living and dead.” It’s through his unique voice that Englander is able to make the terrifying and specific experience of losing a child so universal and humorous, and use that experience to show how people, for better or worse, change.