Falling For Fear
or A Review of Nathan Englander’s “The Ministry of Special Cases”
Author Nathan Englander boldly establishes, within the first pages of his extraordinary debut novel, a voice as engagingly wonderful and weird as any that in any of Salman Rushdie’s great works. Describing the milieu of the Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires in 1976, when the generals came to power and slaughtered a generation of students and dissenters, as well as the strange but absorbing main characters of the novel, Englander looses himself in his art in a way that belies his scant authorial experience.
These characters – such characters! We first meet Kaddish (named for the prayer of mourning), son of a whore, a remover of names from the Jewish cemetery (itself divided by memory and class), for a fee, of course, to allow modern families deniability of their past, their filial disgraces, their backgrounds, their pasts, their Jewishness. Then we meet his son, Pato, feckless and moody, unwilling to follow his father, in love with philosophy, the idea of rebellion, and the promises of eventual sex. But before the story goes further forward, it leaps backwards, describing back-stories upon back-stories, the histories piling up faster than Kaddish can knock the letters off the stones (quickly off limestone, far more slowly off granite).
Lillian, the rock, his wife, strong and resolute, tries to keep these two together, herself pointing forwards into the future, trying to forget the poor choices she made that saddled her with such a mad husband and disappearing son. The cast goes on and on, the Jewish council, friends, colleagues – all fascinating, none a cliché. But into this world comes chaos, for the clouds of the future gather to wipe out the petty concerns of the day-to-day, and threaten to write and erase history of a different kind.
And here is the strength of the novel. The incremental erosion of normality; the gradual introduction of a police state, through measures so reasonable, no one could object, until, in their accumulation, horrors commence. This was one of the great terrors of the 20th Century. We can read about it again and again, in Germany and Russia, Iran and Chile, and here, in Argentina, a change in government brings changes, minor at first, gradually building in scope, in the name of security, stability, peace and tranquility, hope. Eventually, the horror of the situation dawns upon the middle class, too late, for they themselves have bought in to the little accordances of privilege – a badge, a form, a dispensation, a bribe – the relative and secretive gifts of prestige used by the oppressors to ensnare the oppressed.
Through the story, the exoticness of their particular milieu is eroded by familiarity, evaporating into the normal aspects of familial life, as this unusual family tries to make their child’s future better than their own in a middle class neighborhood in a great world city. But then, but then. An evening’s gunfire, the visible evidence of a relatively quick and bloodless coup, and the whispers of disappearances gives the first chill of winter. All this still seems remote, and the sensible purchase by Lillian of an impregnable door, the acquisition of cheap nose-jobs for Lillian and Kaddish, seem like a good defense against encroaching chaos. The police still find a way inside (Kaddish, sensibly, opens the door), and, in a moment’s misjudgement, their son is gone, in a scene right out of “Brazil,” the horror and banal collide in the living room. Pato is bagged and dragged and gone.
The couple try desperately to, at first, reason with the bureaucracy, the Justice Ministry, the Police, and finally, the Ministry of Special Cases, for the return of their son. They find out more about him in their search than they ever knew before, and the search, the hope that somehow a bureaucrat might just help them, leads them to nowhere. Grappling with a burueacracy designed to deaden, to engage and trap energy in molasses forever, the anger and activity of the parents is regulated and shut off from useful rebellion. A little hope, a potential for progress; this is all that a desparate parent needs to mollify and anesthetize them. The oppressors win either way, and we learn (if you don’t already know your history) just some of the horror wrought by the Argentine military government of the late 70s and 80s. I’ll spare you the full extent of the truth. It’s honestly beyond my words, and Englander’s sensitive method of bringing it forth through his words is a monument to the power of writing.
This meticulously researched novel is exquisite; a fictional yet entirely true portrait of the monstrous effects of deliberate dictatorial exploitation of the ordinary man’s desire for security. At what point resistance? How far is too far for them to go, in our names? The implications of this for us, I should not have to explain.