Nathan Englander writes about 'the dirty war'

Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander spent 10 years writing "The Ministry of Special Cases."
MOPR photo/Euan Kerr

Nathan Englander grew up in a deeply religious Jewish family in the U.S. Looking for a way to escape the strictures of that life he moved to Jerusalem, where he met people from all over the world. In particular he was fascinated by the Argentinian Jews he met.

"As a group, just unbelievably sweet, unbelievably sensitive and also unbelievably hardened and closed at the same time," he says.

They had escaped the junta, and told tales of "the disappeared." But Englander was also taken by how loyal they were to their homeland.

"It is touching to me this love of a place that, for want of a better word, regularly betrays its citizens."

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In time, after the junta fell, he visited and fell in love with Argentina too. Englander was looking for a way to write a novel about community, and it was a natural spot.

"The novel is set in Buenos Aires in 1976 at the start of the dirty war," he says. "Obviously there were a lot of victims in that country but in the way that I believe fiction is truer than truth, or allows you to tell the bigger story through focusing it, I thought the best way to tell this story was through one mother and one father and one son."

Lillian and Kaddish are the parents, Pato the son. They are the Posznans. They live a normal life until one day, as Englander reads, the world changes.

"As the four men from the Navy threw a career man from the window, he was thinking his last thoughts. A retired colonel, his uniform covered in the medals from the military regime. All those decorations were upended with him as the blood rushed to his head.

"A medal came loose and clanked against the street. A chest full of honors and what good did it do him?

"I should have served in the Air Force," he thought. "And then I would have wings."

The coup brings gradual change to the Poznan's life. Lillian works in an office. Pato is a college student.

And Kaddish? Well, Kaddish makes his money in a strange way.

He is hired by prominent people to climb into a certain Jewish cemetery where men and women who worked as pimps and prostitutes were buried in decades past. His employers are descendants of the dead, who want him erase some embarrassing history by chiseling off the names. Englander laughs that he he has spent the last 10 years writing two stories that the many in Argentina don't want to the world to hear.

"Which is the dirty war, you know, everyone has worked so hard to keep that story from being known. 'It's over and it's done.' The people keep it alive, but this thing was just quashed. And then the story of the Jewish community which had this little problem, you know representative same as the French and everybody else there and not generally known as a Jewish business but they had their representative segment of the white slavery population of pimps and prostitutes and the community did an excellent job of keeping that story hidden for a hundred years."

Kaddish is viewed as a vandal and a pariah within the community, but still makes good money for what he does.

In "The Ministry of Special cases" Kaddish and Pato butt heads, particularly because Pato has some books Kaddish thinks the authorities won't like. They fight and exchange harsh words, just as the secret police arrive and take Pato away. Englander describes his parents' desperate search for their son and how people react to them.

Englander says he has traveled around the U.S. and Europe, and each country has reacted positively. He's awaiting the Spanish translation though, and perhaps his biggest critics when the book is published in Argentina. Englander is sure he will be dismissed by some as a whippersnapper, as he puts it, but he hopes they will give it a chance.

"It's another thing that I have been interested in, how we are bequeathed historical memories," he says. "I am from new York and my family generations before are from Boston. You know this idea that the Holocaust is my cultural memory was given to me and educated into me because I am Jewish. And I said, why wasn't I given the Armenian genocide. But after 10 years with this book it is passionate for me personally. The dirty war, it's just a terrible crime and I wish the whole world knew about it and personally I hope they get my intentions."