The Ministry of Special Cases

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9780571235445: The Ministry of Special Cases
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The long-awaited novel from Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Englander’s wondrous and much-heralded collection of stories won the 2000 Pen/Malamud Award and was translated into more than a dozen languages.

From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina’s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won’t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence--and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear. When the nightmare of the disappeared children brings the Poznan family to its knees, they are thrust into the unyielding corridors of the Ministry of Special Cases, the refuge of last resort.

Nathan Englander’s first novel is a timeless story of fathers and sons. In a world turned upside down, where the past and the future, the nature of truth itself, all take shape according to a corrupt government’s whims, one man--one spectacularly hopeless man--fights to overcome his history and his name, and, if for only once in his life, to put things right. Here again are all the marvelous qualities for which Englander’s first book was immediately beloved: his exuberant wit and invention, his cosmic sense of the absurd, his genius for balancing joyfulness and despair. Through the devastation of a single family, Englander captures, indelibly, the grief of a nation. The Ministry of Special Cases, like Englander’s stories before it, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness, and--despite that--hope.

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About the Author:

Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander’s story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, 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 New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another's space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe. Kaddish led Pato through uneven rows over uneven ground on the Benevolent Self side. He cupped his hand over the eye of the flashlight to smother the light. His fingers glowed orange, red in between, as he ran his fist along the face of a stone.

They were searching for Hezzi Two-Blades' grave, and finding it didn't take long. His plot rose up sharply. His marker tipped back. It looked to Kaddish as if the old man had tried to claw his way free. It also looked like Two-Blades' daughter had only to wait another winter and she wouldn't have needed to hire Kaddish Poznan at all.

Marble, Kaddish had discovered, is chiseled into not for its strength but for its softness. As with the rest of the marble in the graveyard of the Society of the Benevolent Self, Hezzi's marker was pocked and cracked, the letters wearing away. Most of the others were cut from granite. If nature and pollution didn't get to those, the local hooligans would. In the past, Kaddish had scrubbed away swastikas and cemented back broken stones. He tested the strength of the one over Two-Blades' grave. "Like taking a swing at a loose tooth," Kaddish said. "I don't even know why we bother—a little longer and no sign of this place will remain."

But Kaddish and Pato both knew why they bothered. They understood very well why the families turned to them with such urgency now. It was 1976 in Argentina. They lived with uncertainty and looming chaos. In Buenos Aires they'd long suffered kidnap and ransom. There was terror from all quarters and murder on the rise. There was also then a growing sense of danger. It was no time to stand out, not for Gentile or Jew. And the Jews, almost to a person, felt that being Jewish was already plenty different enough.

Kaddish's clients were the ones who had what to lose, the respectable, successful segment of their community that didn't have in its families such a reputable past. In quieter times it had been enough to ignore and deny. When the last of the generation of the Benevolent Self had gone silent, when all the plots on their side were full, the descendants waited what they thought was a decent amount of time for an indecent bunch and sealed up that graveyard for good.
When he went to visit his mother's grave and found the gate locked, Kaddish turned to the other children of the Benevolent Self for the key. They denied involvement. They were surprised to learn of the cemetery's existence. And when Kaddish pointed out that their parents were buried there, they proved equally unable to recall their own parents' names.

Harsh a stance as this was, it was born of a terrible shame.

Not only was the Society of the Benevolent Self a scandal in Buenos Aires, at its height in the 1920s it was a disgrace beyond measure for every Argentine Jew. Which of their detractors didn't enjoy in his morning paper a good picture of an alfonse in handcuffs, a Caftan member in a lineup—who didn't feel his reviling justified at the sight of the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires accompanied by their pouty-lipped Jewish whores? But this was long over in 1950, when Kaddish found himself locked outside the gate. That terrible industry as a Jewish business was by then twenty years shut down. The buildings that belonged to the Society of the Benevolent Self were long sold off, the pimps' shul abandoned. There was only one holding that couldn't possibly fall into disuse. Disrepair, yes. And derelict, too. But, like a riddle, what's the only thing man can build that is guaranteed perpetual use? The dead use a graveyard forever.

That cemetery was also the only institution established by the pimps and whores of Buenos Aires that was built with a concession from the upstanding Jews. Hard-hearted as those Jews were when it came to the Benevolent Self, they couldn't turn them away in death. The board of the fledgling United Jewish Congregations of Argentina was convened and an impasse reached. No Jew should have to be buried as a Gentile, God help them. But neither should the fine Jews of Buenos Aires have to lie among whores. They shared their quandary with Talmud Harry, who, as leader of the Benevolent Self, sat at the head of a board of his own. "You lie with them living," Harry said, "why not cuddle up when they're dead?"

Eventually it was agreed. A wall to match the one surrounding the graveyard would be built toward the back and a second cemetery formed that was really part of the first—technically but not halachically, which is how Jews solve every problem that comes their way.

The existing wall was a modest two meters, a functional barrier meant to set off a sacred space. The establishment of a Jewish cemetery in a city obsessed with its dead signaled a level of acceptance of which the United Congregations had only dreamed. They wanted to show their ease in its design.

But being accepted one day doesn't mean one will be welcome the next—the Jews of Buenos Aires couldn't resist planning for dark times. So atop that modest wall was affixed another two meters of wrought-iron fence, each bar with a fleur-de-lis on its end. All those points and barbs four meters up gave that wall an unwelcoming, unclimbable, pants-ripping feel. They allowed themselves one hint at grandeur in the form of a columned entryway capped with a dome. Before any balance was achieved among the Jews themselves, this was the one they struck with the outside world.

Two sets of board members stood watching the new wall go up. The westernized Liberator's shul rabbi had declined to attend. It was the young old-country rabbi who paced nervously, making sure certain standards were met and horrified to find himself presiding.

When the mortar had dried, the governors of the United Congregations returned for the installation of the fence. They were surprised to find the pimps assembled on their side. It was a sight those upstanding Jews had hoped never to see again. A line of famed Benevolent Self toughs stood before them, including a still-robust Hezzi Two-Blades, Coconut Burstein, and Hayim-Moshe "One-Eye" Weiss. Towering over Talmud Harry was the very large, very legendary Shlomo the Pin.

"The wall is plenty high enough," Talmud Harry said. "A fence is an insult that need not be made." The Jews of the United Congregations didn't think it was an insult; they thought it would match nicely with the fencing all around. A number of ugly threats were already implicit. There was nothing much Harry needed to add. He pointed at the wall and said only, "This is as separate as it gets."

Their faces went long. They turned to the rabbi, but he couldn't support them. A solid two-meter wall was a separation by any standard: It would suffice for mechitza or sukkah or to pen a goring ox. While the finer points were being argued, Talmud Harry gave the nod. A jittery Two-Blades began to reach, and Shlomo the Pin rolled the fingers of his right hand into a tight cudgel-like fist. Feigenblum, the first president of the United Congregations and father to the second, saw this out of the corner of his eye. He took it as an excellent moment to declare the young rabbi's word binding, and a speedy departure was made.

The pimps didn't want to be second-class any more than their brothers who'd demanded a wall in between. When they put up the façade to their cemetery they commissioned a replica—but one meter higher—of the grand domed entrance that welcomed mourners into the United Congregations side.

Thank God again that it was settled. It allowed Talmud Harry to die in peace and be spared the sight of his own sons, lawyers both, facing Kaddish in the living rooms of their big houses and denying whence they came. It was the same when meeting with One-Eye's daughter and the son of Henya the Mute. All that these children had was fought for and paid for the Benevolent Self way.

It was Lila Finkel—whose mother, Bryna the Vagina, was said to have an incisive perspicacity as well as a cunt of pure gold—who took it upon herself to set Kaddish straight. "Take a breath," she said. Kaddish took one. "Do you smell it in the air?" she asked. Kaddish thought he might. "That's what good fortune smells like, Poznan. It's the season of our prosperity and it's never come this way before."

It was the heyday of Evita, of the liberated worker and her shirtless ones. Factories were rising up under Perón, and Lila drew for Kaddish a picture of the middle class rising with them and making room for the Jews. All she asked was that he join them in looking forward. No reason to dwell on ugly memories soon forgotten. Kaddish wasn't convinced, and Lila's patience began to wear. "Think," she said, and gave a good solid tap to her temple. "Which man is better off"—another riddle—"the one without a future or the one without a past? That's why the wall went up. So that one day the Jews might join together, so we could stand in the United Congregations Cemetery out of joy, not sadness, and all of us, looking toward that wall, might together forget what's on the other side."

Except that, for Kaddish Poznan, the future looked no brighter than the past. He'd not yet met and married Lillian; it was before the birth of his son. Without his mother Favorita's grave to visit, Kaddish had no one at all.

"So what?" Lila said. "In every people's history there are times best forgotten. This is ours, Poznan. Let it go."

Among the children who didn't acknowledge their parents' existence, someone else aside from Lila had been unnerved by what Kaddish said. When he went back to the cemetery bent on getting in, Kaddish found a chain had been added to the gate, a sloppy weld applied, and...

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