It's bit like trying to make a movie in which Pearl Harbor isn't attacked or the Twin Towers don't fall. There's a reason they called it "disappeared"—because there were no missing sons or daughters, fathers or mothers to return alive, usually not even a rotting, mutilated corpse. Yet such is the nearly impossible task Nathan Englander sets for himself in his highly anticipated first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, 339 pages, $25).
The promising young Jewis vh-American author wowed legions of new readers and critics alike with his first book, 1999's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Englander's darkly comic short stories of Jewish suffering sparkle with an exuberance reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer's—whether he's describing the indignities visited on a rabbi forced to work as a department-store Santa ("Reb Kringle") or the cruelties endured by Jewish writers swept up in a Soviet pogrom ("The Twenty-seventh Man").
There is no such sense of hope, however, in The Ministry of Special Cases, an excruciating exercise in futility that may "disappear" Englander's hard-won readership in much the same way characters in the novel vanish without a trace. Englander researched this book for eight years and reportedly pared it down from a manuscript that at one point dragged on for 1,000 pages, with footnotes. The 339-page version is misery enough. Kaddish Poznan, named strangely after the Jewish funeral rite, is an hijo de puta—literally a "son of a whore"—who ekes out a modest living for his family in Buenos Aires by sneaking into the cemetery reserved for Jewish pimps and prostitutes to chisel out the names on their gravestones, thus eradicating the embarrassing ancestry of now-respectable Argentine Jews.
Englander's characteristically morbid humor (a prominent plastic surgeon pays for Kaddish's services by performing nose jobs on him and his wife) abruptly gives way to Kafkaesque menace when the Poznans' son, a university student, is arrested by authorities unknown. After that, it's not giving too much away to say history turns out badly—leads go nowhere, questions go unanswered and parents go unreconciled with a child's death. The Poznans finally penetrate the offices of the titular ministry where they at last meet a government official who speaks plainly of the madness gripping his nation, only to vanish from the narrative like one more of the junta's victims: "You're right that nothing lasts in this country. But you must also know that in Argentina there is no reckoning. Here no one ever pays." No one except the reader, confined without benefit of habeas corpus for the last 140 pages of this dreary book.
Nathan Englander reads from The Ministry of Special Cases at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, May 17. Free.