The Ministry of Special Cases is not a great novel. It is, however, a pretty good novel that could have been great and certainly shows signs of greatness. It’s author, Nathan Englander, is worthy of your attention.
Let’s try, for instance, this passage from page 93. Here’s the set-up: 1976, Buenos Aires. The military has just taken power, and in true paranoid style it’s been rounding up teenagers. Kaddish has been having intense arguments with his son, Pato, over burning his books before some Fascist decides they’re subversive. Now Kaddish has up and decided to do what he thinks is best while his son’s out of the apartment.
For Kaddish, the [book]shelves were a sign of what he’d done right with his son. And this is where Pato misunderstood him. The books made Kaddish proud. He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck. He could dump them all if he wanted, every last book. Simpler. But he wasn’t an animal, he wasn’t being cruel. As always, as forever, Kaddish was trying his best.
First pause on the irony embedded in the two sentences "He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck." You can laugh at (or pity) Kaddish for thinking he could educate his son and still control his attitude. Or you can simply admire Englander for elegantly making the fine distinction between a son’s education and the resultant attitude.
Alternately, you can step back and note that Kaddish’s thoughts about Pato’s education are tellingly similar to those of the Argentine fascists who Kaddish fears might kill Pato, and whom Kaddish is trying to preempt by burning Pato’s books.
Or simply appreciate the distillation of the paradox that is a father-son conflict into this fine moment: the proud father attempting to protect his son by secretly, guiltily burning the emblems of the very thing that makes him a proud father.
Here, Englander is doing what good authors do: he’s making a story his own. This isn’t the first description I’ve read of a fascist-inspired book burning, but I’ve never read one quite like this. What’s special here is how Englander herds so much of this novel through this tiny flashpoint. The book burning not only encapsulates Kaddish’s conflict with his son; it is also a major point in the development of Kaddish’s tragically sad, try-hard aptitude for failure; it’s also the beginning of the fascist half of this book; it’s also taking the theme of erasing history into a new direction; it’s also . . . well, you get the idea.
Of course, there’s more to this scene than just the above-quoted paragraph. Though I’m not going to quote them to you, the three pages that sandwich this paragraph are equally beautiful. They are characterized by the kind of lean, smart writing that makes our paragraph so thoroughly enjoyable to read into. Together, these three pages mark a definite turning point in the novel, one that follows a certain amount of hard-won optimism on the part of Kaddish, Pato, and Pato’s mother.
You can find many other instances of superior construction like this throughout The Ministry of Special Cases; that’s why I’m calling it a very good book that might have been great. Here’s another good example of Englander’s art:
Lillian stood and leaned her forehead against the window. She couldn’t herself believe it. Her husband with his handsome new nose, the face after a lifetime finally right, and now, the final touch, his proper boundaries had fallen into focus. The man coming toward her was sharper, more defined, more perfectly and painfully her Kaddish than any she’d set eyes on before.
It was the closest to him she’d ever felt, the clearest he’d ever been. Kaddish stepped between cars and onto the sidewalk. He craned his neck to look up into their window, as if remembering something, as if he’d sensed he was being watched. Lillian waved with both hands, sliding them back and forth across the glass. Kaddish gave a sad half smile. He raised a hand and waved back to his wife. He paused for a second before disappearing into the building. Her husband, her dear Kaddish, a perfect fit. Kaddish Poznan, father to a missing son.
Look how Englander calmly sets you up and then drops that last line, neatly reversing everything that had come before. There are hints, that "perfectly and painfully," Kaddish’s "sad half smile," but still, at this point in the story (now that Pato is missing and Kaddish’s marriage is falling apart) you are hoping for something positive. You really do want to read it as praise of Kaddish, and you are believing that perhaps there is some cause for hope that Englander hasn’t revealed yet. But then, that last line forces you to read all of Lillian’s thoughts as sardonic commentaries on her impotent husband and her hopeless situation.
This is what Englander, at his best, is doing in The Ministry of Special Cases. He’s creating nice little labyrinths of prose that take two very familiar plotlines (the father-son battle; life with a Kafkaesque fascist government) and turn them into something that bears a very definite Englanderian style. He reminds me a bit of Michael Chabon—not because they’re both Jews writing about Jewish characters but because The Ministry of Special Cases has a definite genre tilt to it, and also because of Englander’s fantastic plotting and for his somewhat distant yet nonetheless compelling characters (on which more later).
There’s are some things not to like about this book. Though Englander is often wonderfully subtle and intelligent, balancing exactly between "too much" and "not enough" information, at other times he falls into the trap of interpreting his book for you.
Also, though Englander’s book is full of period details about Buenos Aires in the 1970s, I never really got a sense of place. (This is somewhat like Pynchon, who does the same thing with the details, but the difference is that in Pynchon it’s more of a stylistic affect than an authentic attempt to recreate place, all of Pynchon taking place in a wacky, hyper world that no one has yet convincingly named.) Except for a few noteworthy pages narrated from the perspective of a disappeared teen, there’s rarely enough intimacy to the prose to tie it to this particular novel, this particular place and time.
Despite these flaws, I think Englander has done a lot of good here. I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Kaddish. All of Englander’s characters are more described than embodied, and this leads to some problems, but in Kaddish’s case Englander has, by the novel’s end, nonetheless made a compelling character. Kaddish had become one of those tragic, almost epic, suffering characters. Tragic suffering may be Kaddish’s one defining characteristic, and yet, Englander creates a singularly Kaddish version of it, in kind of the way that Pynchon makes Benny Profane’s one characteristic indisputably his own.
I think what makes Kaddish work as a character is that in The Ministry of Special Cases Englander isn’t afraid to follow his novel’s logic right to the bitter end. Englander manages to do this for the book as a whole, and that counts for something. (What also counts for something is that Englander does it without belaboring the point, without feeling the need to drone on for a couple-hundred unnecessary pages.) Englander carefully takes his premise in every direction worth taking it, one by one he leads us down each path, until, at last, he has exhausted them all. In so carefully doing this, Englander’s structure displays a definite taut elegance, and, as with his carefully developed paragraphs, this construction provides much food for thought. By the time Englander has taken us down that final path he has filled us with the possibility of everything else that will happen to Kaddish once the novel ends, he has given us a sense of the absurd questions that resist Kaddish’s best efforts to answer them, and at this point Englander wisely brings his novel to a conclusive but nonetheless troubling end. His story is one that, despite the familiar contours, has stayed with me.