BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Nathan Englander
Best ebook deal: Available from certain public libraries as an audiobook
The Jewish characters in Nathan Englander’s 1999 short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, are not so much displaced as they are misplaced—dropped into realistic situations when they actually belong in a more fabulous world. Several of the stories stand on the doorstep of magical realism, but the closest Englander gets to turning the knob is in “The Tumblers,” the standout piece in a strong collection. I was curious to see if, in the eight years between Relief and his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, Englander had indulged his imagination and let loose the fabulist inside.
He hasn’t. Which, given the subject matter, comes as a relief.
There is nothing inherently unique about a family searching for a disappeared son during Argentina’s “Dirty War”—estimates run as high as 30,000 citizens kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the police state during the 70s and early 80s. What is unique are the characters Englander places into his terrifying evocation of 1976 Buenos Aires.
Kaddish Poznan is a confirmed and proud hijo de puta, the only remaining Jew in the city who will claim descent from the Society of the Benevolent Self, a defunct Jewish sect comprised of pimps and their stable of prostitutes. The other children of whores shun Kaddish by day, but by night they pay him to climb into the Society’s cemetery and chisel the names of their parents off the gravestones, for 1976 in Argentina is “… no time to stand out, not for Jews or Gentiles.”
Kaddish’s son, Pato, studies history and sociology at the university, and is ashamed of a father who spends his time erasing the history of a society. Both Kaddish and Pato sense the coming storm, but while Pato reads “dangerous” books, listens to music with political undertones, and whispers rumors of kidnapped professors, “Kaddish’s blindness was as sharp as his sight. He’d learned not to see any trouble that didn’t see him first.”
Their reluctant mediator, Lillian, recognizes the tension between the two men in her life. Shunned herself by the Jewish community for her choice to wed Kaddish, she hitched her wagon to his star and has since been dragged along on a slow and bumpy ride to nowhere, watching her husband make mistake after mistake. “Worse off,” she says at one point. “Always worse off.” But she does have Pato, whom she loves as only a mother can love a son.
When Kaddish’s chiseling services are requested by the scene-stealing Dr. Mazursky, a man who reneges on payment and instead offers family-wide rhinoplasty, the story is set in motion. Kaddish and Pato are headed for a war of their own, and neither can stop it.
Englander creates for us a classic father/son generation-gap conflict. The stubborn Poznan men despise each other with a passion that comes from the deepest love, and we get wrapped up in their story, nearly forgetting the heightened setting against which this relationship is played. But, as Englander reminds us:
You can never let your guard down in Buenos Aires. It’s like standing in the ocean and facing the beach. It’s up to you to know what’s behind you. Always another wave coming, building in force and crashing down.
Pato is kidnapped by the junta, and the remaining two-thirds of the novel involves Kaddish and Lillian’s desperate search for him through the corridors of cold government buildings—including the forbidding Ministry of Special Cases.
The drawback of this turn is that the conflict Englander so expertly sets up for us dissolves as soon as Pato is taken, and the struggles between his parents don’t quite match it for intensity. Kaddish and Lillian soon split up to search for Pato in their own ways, and the narrative drags a bit just when it should be gaining momentum.
This is the reality, however, of life in a police state—a simple knock on the door can forever sever relationships, and Englander doesn’t try to tell us differently. Instead, he trusts the strength of his writing to carry us through. And it does. At one point, he dangles in front of us a kidnapped girl who finds notes (called “caramels” because they’re meant for swallowing) left behind by Pato in his cell, our first word from the boy since he was taken, and our first glimmer of hope that he may yet be alive. The girl swallows the notes and we begin anticipating a scene in which she shows up at the Poznan apartment, notes in hand. Then we turn the page:
… the girl’s body had already been settled in the silt for some days under the pressure of a trillion liters of Rio de la Plata. The notes were still protected in her stomach, still readable below all that water, hidden inside that girl, herself swallowed up in all that dark. There was no perverse miracle in the days that had passed when that poor girl’s body could have been caught in a net or snagged by a troller’s line, the moment in a thousand Jewish fables where the diamond appears in the fish’s belly, where the notes would be harvested and handed to Kaddish or delivered to Lillian in her chair.
It’s a lovely, and achingly deflating, passage. And as Pato’s fate becomes clearer, we are led to a painful, touching, and fulfilling resolution that sees Kaddish and his chisel once more climb over the walls of a cemetery under cover of night to set things right.
One arguable flaw in this recommended novel is that Englander seems to assume that his reader is familiar with post-“Evita” Argentine history. Often I found myself Googling names and events tossed off by his characters, and occasionally I skimmed right over them. While the latter shouldn’t dull your enjoyment of the narrative, doing a bit of research will only enhance the experience. Good literature, after all, should expand our minds. And this is good literature.
Also check out: Desaparecidos, a website devoted to “The Disappeared.” Not much of it is available in English, but it’s worth a visit if for nothing more than to get a look at the “Wall of Memory” mural. (Warning: the mural loads slowly. Very slowly. Like dial-up Internet connection slowly. Click the link, run some errands, take a nap, then come back to it.)