The Ministry of Special Cases

From Aug ’07 Spotlight: June 24 was a busy day. Before I saw Ragtime at Porchlight Music Theatre,  I had breakfast with Nathan Englander, who was in town to discuss his new novel The Ministry of Special Cases at the Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue. His event was part of “Writers on the Record,” a free monthly literary series hosted by Victoria Lautman and co-sponsored by Chicago magazine and WFMT radio.

The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Buenos Aires during the dark days of the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), when thousands of Argentine citizens–a disproportionate number of whom were Jewish–disappeared. “Part of what interested me about this story was the not knowing of it,” Englander told me. “How is it that we Americans don’t know this story? I was given the Holocaust: ‘never forget.’ But I didn’t know, as I was being taught the Holocaust story, that there was a totalitarian regime in my hemisphere, in my lifetime. This was going on, and we were looking away. It’s always interesting: what people want to know and what they don’t want to know.”

“I went to the testimonies of some of the people living in Israel who had survived,” he continued, “and the stories were amazing. Anti-Semitism surely played into many disappearances, and then again, the social role of Jews. Many were more left-wing. The madness of this book is me toning down a reality that was far madder.”

“There’s a line in my book about trouble; ‘trouble always starts when it starts for you,’ basically,” he said reflectively. “In my own life, my God, I sit here now, having breakfast with you, and in Guantánamo, we’ve suspended habeas corpus. Hundreds of years before people thought slavery might be corrupt, they understood that habeas corpus was a basic human right. What is my responsibility?”

“That’s one of the exciting and wonderful and dizzying and overwhelming things about being a writer,” he concluded. “You work in private, then you put the book out there and you’re in the world. I’m very confused about the absolute, but I like the idea that I can spend ten years and explore the question, build a world, create these people. But maybe my head doesn’t make it to the answer.”

To read excerpts from The Ministry of Special Cases, visit: www.nathanenglander.com

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