To say that there are high expectations for this first novel is something of an understatement. Englander is a New Yorker who won the PEN/ Malamud Award for his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Certainly, that book seemed to signal an astringent, sardonic new voice, with its off-kilter synthesis of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Woody Allen. Admirers were betting on Englander joining the Saul Bellow/Philip Roth school of Jewish-American novelists.
All this suggests that he might be in danger of being promoted beyond reasonable expectations. So, does The Ministry of Special Cases deliver? The book is set in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, with a pending military coup destabilising society. Englander's anti-hero is Kaddish Poznan, who has carved out a precarious niche by erasing names from gravestones, stripping away traces of embarrassing ancestors for his Jewish clients. He has a fractious relationship with his wife Lillian and son Pato, and the latter nurses a hatred for his father as he is dragged on nocturnal graveyard expeditions. In fact, Pato is more socially committed than his father, with political activities likely to upset the authorities.
The first section is an exercise in corrosive black comedy – but then, as his parents feared, Pato vanishes, spirited away for his indiscretions. Kaddish and his wife begin a frantic attempt to save him, and one of their ports of call is the eponymous Ministry. It is Kaddish's surrealistic, disturbing (and often grimly funny) dealings with this monolithic department that invites comparisons with one of the author's great forebears, Kafka, although Englander has disavowed such comparisons.
Even if he isn't happy with the adjective "Kafka-esque", there's no denying the panache with which Englander reinvents the tropes of The Trial. The other Jewish antecedent of the protagonist is, of course, Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. There the comparisons are less flattering to Englander. While Bloom, in search (like Kaddish) of his "lost son", is ineluctably Jewish in his philosophical (and bleakly fatalistic) turn of mind, he remains an Everyman to whom every reader can relate. Kaddish is a much more specific figure. While Joyce's 1904 Dublin can seem like 2007 London, Englander's 1970s Buenos Aires remains stubbornly that.
On its own, highly individual terms, however, the novel proves that Englander is well on the way to justifying the euphoria that his name evokes.
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