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Authors: Nathan Englander

The Ministry of Special Cases

BOOK: The Ministry of Special Cases
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Acclaim for Nathan Englander’s

[  THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES  ]

“Resonates of Singer, yes, but also of Bernard Malamud and Lewis Carroll, plus the Kafka who wrote
The Trial
…. You will wonder how a novel about parents looking for and failing to find their lost son, about a machinery of state determined to abolish not only the future but also the past, can be horrifying and funny at the same time…. This one is.”


Harper’s Magazine

“Englander brings this world to life in his assured and powerful first novel…. A tale of family, religion, the slow meltdown of a society where the abnormal becomes normal. The writing is pure, the story unforgettable.”


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Eloquent…. A heartbreaking story of resilience, hope and how far people will go to save a loved one.”


The Oregonian

“Englander’s prose moves along with a tempered ferocity—simple yet deceptively incisive…. [A book] about fathers and sons and mothers and faith and community and war and hope and shame. Yes, that’s a lot to pack into 339 pages. But not when a book reads at times with the urgency of a thriller.”


Esquire

“Brilliant…. Englander is a master storyteller. His scenes are harrowing, funny, absurd, tragic, and urgently paced.”


The Dallas Morning News

“Wonderful…. Englander maintains an undertone of quirky comedy almost to the end of his story.”


Newsweek

“[Englander’s] journey into the black hole of paradox would have done Kafka or Orwell proud.”


People

“Brace yourself for heartbreak…. Most of the story is so convincingly told that it’s hard to imagine that Englander hasn’t weathered political persecution himself.”


Time Out New York

“A vibrant, exquisite, quirky and devastating historical novel—and a gift to readers…. Written in crisp, unsentimental prose,
The Ministry of Special Cases
is as heartbreaking a novel as
Sophie’s Choice.”


The Hartford Courant

“[S]pare, pitch-perfect passages…. Through deft, understated prose, Englander evokes the incremental way in which fear grips a community, citizens accustom themselves to ignoring those small outrages and how those outrages gradually but inexorably give way to larger atrocities, tolerated by an ever more complicit populace.”


The Miami Herald

“A wrenching political-historical fable…. Intones a haunting, heartfelt kaddish: for
los desaparecidos
, and for all the Jewish disappeared, and unburied, throughout history.”


Chicago Tribune

“A moving, thoughtful, even humorous and carefully crafted first novel.”


The Denver Post

“With deft, brutal strokes, Englander takes us to a place where we would never want to go. It’s his gift that he can make us willing, even eager, to go there.”


The Providence Journal

“Engrossing…. Englander perfectly captures the language of disorientation, the tautologies through which the country’s oppressors support their own positions and thwart pleading citizens at every turn.”


Rocky Mountain News

“Englander bravely wrangles the themes of political liberty and personal loss….
The Ministry of Special Cases
is carefully contradictory, wise and off-kilter, funny and sad.”


The New York Observer

Nathan Englander

[  THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES  ]

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.

ALSO BY NATHAN ENGLANDER

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

For my father

WOMAN
  Come, let me go at once and incense burn
                  In thanks to Heav’n for my child’s safe return.


HERMIPPUS

The Doctor and the Gravedigger, they are partners.


YIDDISH PROVERB

[  PART ONE  ]
[ 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. 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 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 had signaled a level of acceptance of which the United Congregations only dreamed. They’d 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 they’d 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. The United Congregations 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, this was the one they’d 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.”

BOOK: The Ministry of Special Cases
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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