May 07

Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases: Two Reviews by Zeek

Jay Michaelson and Peter Bebergal

Fantasy and Totalitarianism: On Ministering to Special Cases

Jay Michaelson

Even if you're Nathan Englander, inventor of the prostitution-prescribing rabbi, truth is stranger than fiction. Like Jonathan Safran Foer before him, Englander has chosen to expand his palette from the fantastic to the political – in Englander's case, from neo-Yiddish-lit fantasies to the true stories of Argentina's "disappeared," the between 5,000 and 30,000 leftists, trade unionists, students, and other rabble-rousers of that country's military dictatorship. Between 10% of 20% of those victims were Jews, and Englander’s novel is the (fictionalized) story of one of them.

It's the right move, but a dangerous one, because, as Englander himself must have realized as he laboriously wrote and re-wrote the manuscript (so the grapevine says, anyway), the arc to the disappearances is a difficult one for a novel. One day, a boy named Pato is there; the next, he isn't. And he probably isn't coming back either. Indeed, without giving too much away, The Ministry of Special Cases is largely the narrative of how Pato's parents, Kaddish and Lillian Poznan, are slowly swallowed by despair. There are plot twists, but really the book is like Requiem for a Dream and other junkie-lit classics; there's only one way to go, and it's down.

And down and down they go: beaten (physically and emotionally), impoverished, ruined, separated, the Poznans are utterly destroyed in the book, chapter by chapter As their approaches to their loss begin to diverge – Kaddish moving through despair into acceptance, Lillian refusing to give up hope – their marriage unravels. And, credit Englander for truthfulness, there are few miracles in military dictatorships.

As the arc of the story became clear, my hope was that Englander's prose style, which I have personally studied, emulated, and puzzled over, would carry me through the despair of the book's plot, perhaps redeeming in artistry what was stolen in history. To my surprise, I had no such luck. While there are some quintessentially Englanderian images and turns of phrase, much of the writing settles, particularly in the second half of the book, into the conventional tone of a well-written and earnest historical novel. Now, admittedly, it's difficult to write prose that is neither overwrought nor undercooked, and Englander pulls it off. But for fans of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, much of the magic is gone.

That might, however, be the point.

In the first half of The Ministry of Special Cases, all seems to be Englander Business as Usual. We are introduced to Kaddish Poznan, the son of a prostitute and member of a seemingly fictional underground Jewish community, the Society for the Benevolent Self, whose wacky characters have such names as Talmud Harry and Toothless Mazursky. In the universe Englander creates, this Society for the Benevolent Self was comprised of prostitutes and their illegitimate children, and existed alongside the mainstream Buenos Aires Jewish community, with their own cemetery, synagogue, and benevolent association. Eventually, some of the Society's members grow up to be respectable members of the community, and so Kaddish hires himself out to the community’s descendants – like Mazursky’s son, the unscrupulous plastic surgeon who plays a pivotal role in the book – erasing their family names from their ancestors’ tombstones, thus effacing any trace of the now-wealthy families’ dubious origins.

Fantasy, right? Not so fast. Actually, as recounted in such studies as Isabel Vincent’s Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas, there was a real Society for the Benevolent Self: a mutual-aid society known as Chesed Shel Emet (“The Benevolent Society of Truth”), set up by women who were forced into prostitution by Jewish criminal gangs between 1860 and 1939. During this period, thousands of Jewish girls were sold into slavery by such gangs as Warsaw’s notorious Zwi Migdal, with Buenos Aires being the primary trading post between Eastern Europe and South America. According to Vincent, the Zwi Migdal cartel earned $50 million a year at its height. And by 1913, Argentina had more than 3,000 brothels, an uncounted number of which were run by Jews.

Like Englander’s fictionalized version, the Society of Truth even had to run its own cemetery, as the mainstream communities in Buenos Aires shunned these victims of the sex trade for their “sin,” marginalizing their children as well (hijo de puta, ben zona and other euphemisms for “son of a whore” are insults in many languages). The Society closed in 1968, and most Jews have been happy to forget it ever existed. Indeed, some early reviews of The Ministry of Special Cases have assumed that Englander simply invented the Society for the Benevolent Self, treating it as a fictional creation as he did the rabbi in his For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, who prescribes visits to a prostitute to a man unable to obtain sexual release.

I wasn't sure myself at first; I didn't know this episode of Jewish history. Englander embellishes the details (the names themselves are hilarious) and, having read his stories, I assumed he was weaving a fantasy. In fact, this sleight-of-hand carries the book. Kaddish’s erasure of memory is an obvious (some might say too obvious) foreshadowing of the Argentine junta's attempts to uproot any history of the “disappeared.” But it also greatly complicates what would otherwise be a simple good-guy/bad-guy polarity in the novel. Granted, excommunication and ostracism are not the same as torture and murder, but as our own ignorance of this chapter of Jewish history makes us all – not merely the “bad guys” of the junta, or the Argentine Jews in the book – complicit in a form of willful cultural amnesia.

It's all too easy to paint Jews as victims – and profitable too, as any notion that we might also be oppressors is routinely demonized as self-hatred, or helping the anti-Semites, or worse. This, doubtless, is how The Ministry of Special Cases will primarily be received: as telling a little-known tale of Jewish suffering. I can see the monument already. But the book is much more than that. By including forms of Jewish oppression within its narrative, it greatly complicates the questions of memory and accountability. The junta, obviously, is Satanic; when, in a highly implausible passage, Kaddish and Lillian confront one of the generals, his evil is palpable. The Buenos Aires Jewish community is morally ambiguous; when Lillian (who came from the right side of the fence but transgressed the boundary by marrying Kaddish) goes to its leader for help, she is aided but not entirely welcomed. Englander admirably draws a nuanced portrait of the community's chief rabbi, allowing the reader to decide whether he is an appeaser or a hero, a savior or a scoundrel – or, as perhaps in the leadership of German and American Jewish communities during the Holocaust – some of each.

But we, too, are implicated, by our general ignorance of what happened in Argentina – and our own government's support of the junta, one among many murderous regimes our nation propped up in its fight against communism – as well as by our tendency to acknowledge our own community's past sins, both the Zwi Migdal and all of us who blame victims for their enforced shame.

All this would be rather pious if Englander didn't include the questions of narrative and art within the critique. We want our stories to be fantastic, to have trajectories, to have good guys and bad guys. Many of us wanted another fabulous tale of mystical rabbis from Englander. I myself wanted resolution to the plot of this book. And, in the wider arena, we want there to be an "endgame" in Iraq, as if the country were a chessboard; a "game plan" for climate change, as if the atmosphere is a football field; coherent narratives for tragedies like Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City, with good guys, bad guys, and no one in between, when in fact, all of this is delusion. Worse than that, it is a kind of aesthetic proto-totalitarianism: a demand for the tidy. Argentina's fascists, like Italy's, were largely about cleaning up society – picking up trash, shutting up the rabble, and generally putting the country's house in order. Like Hitler's fascism, their ideology was one of cleanliness, purity, strength. The Hebrew word for it, courtesy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, is hadar – a kind of dignity and aesthetic beauty that is appurtenant to higher forms of humanity. The classical forms of Leni Riefenstahl, the broad boulevards of fascist Italy, as well as the inchoate sense that, yes, well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet – but at least someone is doing the cooking, and cleaning up the kitchen too.

In other words, the demand for tidy narrative and clear characters is itself part of the problem. An honest politics is one which ministers to special cases, and recognizes that a neat society is intrinsically an unjust one. In the book, the Ministry of Special Cases is a Kafkaesque maze, where the slightest technical slip-up means failure, and where distraught parents are met by dismissive bureaucrats. Its very name, of course, an oxymoron: a bureaucratic department of that which cannot be categorized. Yet we somehow hope that Lillian's persistence will somehow shake something loose (actually, she accidentally frees someone else's child), as if the great anti-humanity of homogenizing totalitarianism, mechanizing bureaucracy, and endless, endless forms might somehow, perhaps by mistake, yield an answer. Whereas in fact it is only Kaddish, the schlemiel, the schemer, whose life has been spent in the underworld, who is able to find the few blades of grass growing through the cement, and obtain a measure of truth.

So perhaps it makes sense, although not a lot of fun, that the magic has been drained from this novel – that Kaddish's dysfunctional relationship with his son is so unpleasant as to make one wonder why he searches in the first place and that whatever endings the novel does provide are not happy ones. Throughout, the reader wants there to be a sudden twist, a happy reunion, a breakthrough, a revelation – not to mention good guys and bad guys, entertainment, and charming Jewish nostalgia. In fact, all we get is bleakness. Does any of this sound familiar? Is anyone else watching the news?

For Peter Bebergal's review This Can't Be Real click here.

Images: From Flora Rosefsky's series Flight: Songs of Praise.
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