The fate of Argentina’s Jews during the 1976–83 “Dirty War” is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this stark first novel from the author of the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999).
Englander focuses tightly on the family of Kaddish Poznan, who scrapes together a living by obliterating despised surnames (those of “the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires . . . [and] their . . . whores”) from gravestones in a cemetery unvisited by their scandalized relatives. This earns him little respect from his wife, Lillian, who works for a life-insurance firm, and their 19-year-old son Pablo (nicknamed “Pato”), a university student whose political idealism estranges him from his parents’ strategies for survival, as their country’s ruling junta hunts down “undesirables” and innocent citizens swell the ranks of “the disappeared.” A context of uncertainty and terror is gradually defined: Lillian invests in a steel door for their apartment; Kaddish trades his services to a plastic surgeon for rhinoplasties that may make him and Lillian look “less Jewish”; and the precautionary burning of their son’s books in the family’s bathtub sends Pato angrily away from them and into the clutches of their oppressors. Englander’s perfectly engineered plot then takes the distraught parents into the belly of the beast as they importune the police and the eponymous Ministry (a Kafkaesque nightmare of doubletalk and indifferent brutality). They have a chilling confrontation with a prosperous general and his heartless wife and more despairing encounters with a phlegmatic relief worker, a priest who can do good only by circumventing moral action and a self-described “monster” who survives by performing the dirty war’s dirtiest deeds. One stunning twist discloses Pato’s fate in a way neither parent will ever accept, and the novel climaxes where it began, in a cemetery, where Kaddish hopes, against hope, to beat the murderers at their own game.
A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander’s story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations.