Eight years have passed between the release of Nathan Englander's widely acclaimed debut collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. As with any highly anticipated event, the burning question about the novel is, was it worth the wait? The answer is a qualified yes this accomplished if imperfect work of literary fiction is beautifully written, hard to put down and packs a very subtle, lingering emotional wallop. The Ministry of Special Cases begins and ends in cemeteries, and death hovers over the book from start to finish. Set in Buenos Aires in 1976, the story involves the Disappeared, those casualties of Argentina's domestic Dirty War, many of them students, who were abducted by operatives of the Junta and summarily dropped off the face of the earth. In a civilized, urbane country suddenly cowed by fear, the government tried to obliterate every trace of these victims' existence. Their brave, frustrated families struggled against the faceless system to learn the truth and keep their loved ones' memories alive. To join the Disappeared is the fate of 19-year-old, pot-smoking, mildly revolutionary university student Pato Poznan. To search for the truth about his disappearance and mourn his loss is that of his parents, Kaddish and Lillian. Kaddish, quite literally a hijo de puta, or son of a whore (though the rabbi who shuns him because of these shameful origins at the same time insists there is no such thing as a Jewish whore), works under cover of night, hired by local Jews to remove the names of their dead relatives from headstones. Like everyone in Buenos Aires, these assimilated Jews are wary of past associations. Sometimes Pato reluctantly joins his father in this nefarious undertaking, but the two invariably end up fighting, as fathers and teenage sons will. After Pato is arrested and released during the raid on a cafÅ½, he and Kaddish predictably lock horns, and no sooner has Kaddish keened, I wish you'd never been born, than this carelessly uttered curse seems to come true. Five men arrive at the door of their apartment and cart Pato off without explanation or charge. In the strongest, most chilling section of the novel, Englander deftly captures the blend of paranoia, absurdity and banality that characterizes the bureaucratic nightmare Kaddish and Lillian encounter at every turn as they try to earn his release. For each, the attempt to find out what has happened to Pato will lead down different emotional paths: Lillian, with a mother's unwavering hope and perseverance, refuses to give up on finding Pato; Kaddish, who has experienced nothing but disappointment in his life, resigns himself to the inevitable outcome.
Englander, who is American, not Argentine, and who was a young child in 1976, offers a compelling vision of a nation's darkest hour, with its corrupt and indifferent generals, priests, rabbis and government functionaries. The oppression of the military regime, with its suspension of habeas corpus, its murders and disappearances, is accepted by the gentile Argentines because, in Kaddish's words, it's well-mannered. The whole country turns away, as if they've caught the government with something in its teeth. It's become crass to even acknowledge the loss. The Ministry of Special Cases is a powerful and profound novel. The qualified yes at the beginning of this review is there only because Englander is sometimes a little heavy-handed with metaphor, as if he doesn't completely trust himself or his reader to get it. Using Kaddish, the name of the Jewish prayer for the dead, as the name of a central character, for instance, seems a bit precious, or at the very least, distracting. And while he cloaks a pervasive subplot about plastic surgery in well-honed humor, the symbolism is a little too ham-fisted for a writer as capable of breathtaking elegance as Englander. Nathan Englander has been compared to nearly every Jewish writer who has come before him, stretching at least as far back as Kafka. With this bravura performance, he has more than answered any question about potential fulfilled. Now a new question emerges: Will we have to wait another eight years to see what Englander can conjure up next? Robert Weibezahl, author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.