Excerpted from The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. Copyright © 2008 by Nathan Englander. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Q: Your debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was a national bestseller in hardcover and paperback, winner of the PEN/Malamud award, and drew comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Eight years later, THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES is your debut novel. What did it feel like to achieve success so early in your career?
A: Before the first book came out, I was living in Jerusalem and writing short fiction, literary short fiction–about Hasidim. I didn’t plan on success, early or late. When the collection received the reception it did, it was all very exciting and very humbling and now it’s also all very moot. Eight years later, what does it mean? The writing part never stops; that’s what I do. But as far as the career part–whatever was achieved–it feels like starting again. And when you publish one book in your late twenties, and then another in your (late) thirties, it becomes clear that a sizable hunk of your future is tied up in what happens with each book. Right now I’m packing my apartment up in boxes–because I know things are going to go one way or the other. I’m either upsizing or downsizing come summer, but everything is going to change.
Q: Have you been working on the book for eight years? What else have you been doing with your time since the publication of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges?
A: The book has been all consuming. I’ve failed miserably at my attempts to take a day off every week. And I don’t like to have to be anywhere but sitting at my table writing. Due to my inability to have any casual hobby, there’s usually some activity I’m obsessed with at the same time, so that it’ll be write-and-run for a year or two, and then write-and-swim, or write-and-bike. For the last couple of years I’ve been obsessed with yoga–which has been fantastic but would have ruined me if I’d started earlier. It makes me too calm and optimistic. My first book would have been called something like, The Big Book of Daisies and Meadows: There’s a Little Good in All of Us.
Q: THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES is set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War. How did you become interested in the Dirty War and what inspired you to write about it?
A: Simply put, I became interested in what it is to lose your world, to have a city you love change around you. But I think that’s an idea that grew as the book did, developing alongside ideas relating to community and identity and (one hopes after spending all these years on it) a host of other themes. If I try and trace the idea to its very inception, I think I’d have to say it started when I went to Israel for a year in 1989. It was the first time I was properly exposed to people from other cultures (at least to Jews from other cultures–which was already racy for me). I was fascinated by this group of Argentines. I surely didn’t have a coherent way to say it then, didn’t know what it was I was seeing, but they were this very sweet, very kind, very closed group of guys, whose personalities–who they were as people, not just their worldview but everything that informed them as individuals–were shaped, very clearly, by the political realities of their childhoods. A fascination with the people became a fascination with the place. And when my ideas had taken shape and there was a story ready to be built up, it was clear that Argentina was the base on which to set it.
Q: At the start of THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES, one character asks another: “Which man is better off, the one without a future or the one without a past?” To what extent do you think this is a choice people are commonly faced with?
A: Every big decision probably forces the choice in some way. There’s always a concession involved. Are you going to be truer to the person you want to be (i.e., yourself in the future) or to the person you’re supposed to be (i.e., yourself according to the selectively edited history with which you were raised)? In the novel, the idea plays out on a much larger scale. Because in the Argentina I created, in the Dirty War setting as imagined, I became obsessed with the almost quantum-mechanical evil that is a byproduct of disappearing people. To kill a person is to deny that person a future–the basic act that is murder. To “disappear” that same person is also, oddly, to reach in and undo the past. It’s not to make them no-more. It’s to make them, not-ever. It is to be undone. It’s a way of fracturing the seeming unbreakable link between future and past. The question that flows through much of this novel, I guess, is: Despite the best intentions how do we–as individuals, or societies (take your pick)–contribute to our own undoing?
Q: THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES focuses on a Jewish family in Buenos Aires. To what extent does your own religion influence your writing?
A: This is the kind of answer that gets me in trouble, but the influence of religion on my writing is simply not my concern. I say this while acknowledging the very obvious role religion has played in my fiction until now, and with the awareness that this book, like the last, is chock full of Jews. My obligation is to the story–and I view any sort of outside categorization or conscious acceptance of themes that aren’t generated from within the fiction as limiting and potentially corrupting forces. Because to say, as it does in the question above, that the book “focuses on a Jewish family” is true. But it also means that the Poznan family is in some way “other.” The Poznans are the center of this novel. They are the family. And they are only “other” to me in the ways that they are other to themselves. That’s why I don’t think about religion when I work–I am exactly as aware of it as, say, Kaddish is at any given moment, or as that moment demands. Personally, I don’t think I could introduce myself to a stranger, or even see my oldest friend, and make it ten seconds without saying that I’m Jewish, or referencing it in some way. That’s me. But I don’t consider myself a Jewish writer, and I definitely do not look at the work as Jewish. For anyone who’d say, Hogwash! How could he not call himself a Jewish writer? Tell me–after a decade of obsession with it, in a book that is at the very least equally as much about being Argentine as it is about being Jewish–is anyone, anywhere, ever going to call me an Argentine writer? A single person? No, because I’m not Argentine. So if it’s not about subject matter, or the characters, or the soul of a book, and it’s not about how much time and energy, how much of a writer’s life he or she has spent dedicated to a subject, then it must be based on other judgments that should not, and must not, be part of the process.
Q: Would you compare Argentina’s Dirty War to events happening in our world today?
A: Do you want me to list by topic: Military coups, state-sanctioned murders, disappeared innocents, silenced journalists…or should we go by victims as percentage of a population or break it down by hemisphere? I don’t know if there’s ever been a peaceful time on this planet, but at least, from my very-often-protected perspective, there have been times of greater hope. There’s definitely no shortage of ways to link those dark times in Argentina to current events–this, I say, while acknowledging the unique nature of the Dirty War (as I don’t think a nation that’s been through something like that believes any other experience is comparable, and rightly so). What was shocking to me was getting to the end of this novel and lifting my head up to find that one of the larger elements, the part about habeas corpus, was actually in the news in America. If I’d spent all this time writing a children’s book about an industrious Central Park squirrel that learns to drive a city bus, I would be no less surprised to have dropped off my manuscript at the publisher and then stepped on the M104 to find Chippy the Opposable-Thumbed Squirrel at the wheel than to find Congress passing laws denying people the right to file a writ of habeas corpus in 2006. I really don’t know what to say about it yet; I’ve got some studying to do. As regards Argentina in 1976 my position is crystal clear.
Q: As much as this book is about Argentina and the Dirty War, plastic surgery also plays a considerable role. How does that theme fit in?
A: In a book where history is being altered on so many levels, I got interested in what’s behind people’s willingness to physically alter themselves. It’s fascinating to me, the idea of one acceptable nose (and, as technology advances, one acceptable body, or one acceptable age). This book is very much about the links between the past and the future, and the altering of identity through surgery is another way that the continuum gets broken. Insert your own body part and the gender of your choice, but how often do you hear someone say, “Her nose is so perfect it can’t be real.” Well that’s an odd thought, that the “perfect” nose would (or even could) be a fake nose. And it’s that agreed-upon illusion, and the kind of society that forms around it, that really fit with the novel for me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a series of e-mails called In-Box Since 1999, where I try and salvage a thousand lost friendships. I’m really in trouble with the whole world.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Kaddish is the only one of the children of the Society of the Benevolent Self—“a disgrace beyond measure for every Argentine Jew”—who is willing to acknowledge his heritage. Yet he makes his living from obliterating the names on tombstones in the sealed-off cemetery that contains his heritage. How does Kaddish see himself: as a servant of the truth and of history, or as an opportunist with no particular loyalties?
2. Why does Kaddish force Pato to work with him in the graveyard, and why does he force him to strike the chisel that will obliterate the name from the stone? As they drive home from the hospital Pato tells Kaddish, “You're lazy. You're a failure. You've kept us down. You embarrass us. You cut off my finger. You ruined my life.” The narrator goes on to refer to “the grand Jewish tradition of the dayeinu . . . And central to the form is the notion that each accusation, if that had been Kaddish's only shortcoming, still it would have been enough” [p. 61]. How complicated are Pato's feelings for his father? Why does Kaddish so often make poor decisions?
3. The Ministry of Special Cases is rooted in Argentina's history from the time of the Zvi Migdal—a criminal organization of Jewish gangsters who were active in Buenos Aires and ran the brothels—to the time of the military junta of 1976-1983, during which thousands of Argentine citizens, mostly young people, vanished without a trace. Do some research into this history, and discuss with your group how it affects your reading of the story.
4. Kaddish's mother, Favorita, was the victim of another kind of kidnapping, a form of white slavery [p. 21]. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, poor young women from Russian shetls were seduced into false marriages and sold into prostitution in the brothels of Buenos Aires. How much control do the people in this novel have over their lives? We're told that Kaddish had “never expected a happy life; only moments of joy to carry him through” [pp. 94-95]. How does Kaddish's background influence his approach to life?
5. Kaddish's negotiations with Mazursky, and the fallout from his acceptance of the offer of two nose jobs, constitute an absurdist episode in a largely tragic story. How does Englander manage to mingle comedy with his darker plot? What is the effect of his narrative style for you as a reader?
6. A chain of books including Chekhov, Lermontov, and Voltaire tells how Pato chose his patrimony: “Each book begat another. For a boy whose entire family history dead-ended on his father's side, this is how Pato traced his line” [pp. 93-94]. The second struggle—a fateful one—between father and son takes place after Kaddish has tried to burn Pato's books. What do the books tell us about Pato, and why does he attempt to save them even though he understands the risk to himself if these books are discovered? Why does Kaddish curse his son [p. 116]? What does Pato mean by his parting statement, “Fathers are always fathers. Sons always sons” [p. 122]?
7. Look closely at the descriptive prose, the tone, and the pacing of Chapter 17, and discuss what this passage demonstrates about Englander as a writer.
8. It is a matter of historical fact that during the junta young people suspected of having politically subversive views were arrested, interrogated and tortured, drugged and thrown out of airplanes. Infant children of the disappeared were sometimes adopted by military families—as happens here with the general and his wife [pp. 107-08]. These facts seem, perhaps, utterly surreal and fictional. How does Englander want his readers to experience history in this story?
9. Given the fact that no one (except the extremely brave woman in the bakery) will help Kaddish and Lillian recover their son, and that in their loss the parents too are negated, the novel implies that the Argentine people capitulated, in their silence, to the corruption and savagery of the junta. As Cacho says, “Everyone is sleeping deeply” [p. 126]. Does the novel imply that people get the government they deserve? What might cause such passivity and acquiescence in a population?
10. What are the key elements of Lillian's character, and how does she differ from Kaddish in her attempts to deal with Pato's disappearance? Do you identify more with her continuing hope than with Kaddish's belief that Pato is dead? Or the reverse?
11. What is ironic about the concept of habeus corpus as a legality by which the junta protects itself from accusations of kidnapping? Why do Kaddish and Lillian need a witness in order to get a writ of habeus corpus for Pato [pp. 209, 223-27]?
12. What strategies does the Ministry of Special Cases use in dealing with the families of the disappeared? What do the people who work there, including the military priest who takes Lillian's money, hope to achieve? How does Kaddish attempt to deal with the impossible demands being made by the priest and with Lillian's desire to meet them?
13. Discuss Englander's decision, in Chapter 43, to introduce the character of the unnamed girl who finds Pato's notes to his parents and dies without ever delivering these notes. “The memory is the girl's alone, and that's how it will stay. Still, in this horrible time when the junta would weave a nation's truth from lies, Lillian would have been happy and Kaddish would have been happy that, independent of them, one fine girl for one fine day believed in Pato Poznan—both living and dead” [p. 304]. What is interesting about this situation in which one desaparecido bears witness, silently, to the existence of another?
14. The novel is deeply concerned with the questions of identity: we see the changing or the removal of names, the alteration of faces and of the past. In contrast to all this, the girl who finds the notes on which Pato has written his name thinks, “It was such a civilized act, writing one's name, a concrete act. It made her think she could leave a history herself” [p. 302]. Why are these two sentences so important to the novel?
15. The rabbi who named Kaddish said, “Let his name be Kaddish to ward off the angel of death. A trick and a blessing. Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned” [p. 8]. Does Kaddish's name suit him? What resonance do the rabbi's words take on, given the arc of the whole story?
16. The episode of the girl in the cell reveals the fact that Pato was held there as well, and that he undoubtedly shared the same fate as the girl who finds his notes in the foam mattress. So Kaddish is right about his son's fate, while Lillian is wrong. How does this knowledge affect your reading of the last final chapters?
17. Kaddish's desire to bury and to mourn his son meets with frustration when a rabbi tells him, in an ironic return to the habeus corpus problem, that he cannot bury his son if he has no body to bury. Does this constitute a final estrangement from the Jewish community for Kaddish, especially since the desire to give the dead the proper rites of burial accords with an ancient Jewish tradition? What do you make of Kaddish's attempt to trick Lillian into accepting the bones of a stranger for her son's?
18. Englander says that in writing the novel, “I became obsessed with the almost quantum-mechanical evil that is a byproduct of disappearing people. To kill a person is to deny that person a future—the basic act that is murder. To 'disappear' that same person is also, oddly, to reach in and undo the past. It's not to make them no-more. It's to make them, not-ever. It is to be undone. It's a way of fracturing the seeming unbreakable link between future and past. The question that flows through much of this novel, I guess, is: Despite the best intentions how do we–as individuals, or societies (take your pick)—contribute to our own undoing?” How would you address the ideas here, as well as the final question?
19. What is the effect of the novel's final pages? How do you imagine the rest of life for Kaddish and Lillian? Does the conclusion provide a sense of closure, or does it refuse to do so?