Argentina’s dirty war provides setting for Jewish writers new work

For nearly 10 years, Nathan Englander dwelled in Buenos Aires. And he didn’t even have to leave his Manhattan neighborhood to get there.

That’s because the former yeshiva student and award-winning author spent almost a decade inhabiting an Argentina-of-the-mind as he wrote “The Ministry of Special Cases.” But don’t cry for Englander. He is already drawing rave reviews for his long-awaited debut novel.

As part of a national book tour, Englander will appear Tuesday, May 15 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

His novel is set in 1970s Argentina, when a vicious military junta ruled the country, causing thousands of “enemies” to disappear in the “Dirty War.” Englander’s hero: Kaddish Poznan, son of a Jewish prostitute, a lowlife from the wrong side of the tracks for whom the dirty war gets dirtier when his own son vanishes.

Along the way, Englander probes Buenos Aires’ unique Jewish community and how it fits into larger Argentine society. At the same time, the author maintains that his is not a “Jewish novel” and that he is not a strictly a “Jewish writer.”

“I have to be unfettered,” Englander said by phone from his New York home. “I find it limiting if I have to think of my characters as ‘others.’ I’m not writing genre fiction. To me, my position is nothing if not respectful of the characters.”

The germ of the novel first came to him while attending a friend’s 1991 wedding in Argentina. Eight years later, Englander arrived on the literary scene with the publication of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” a collection of short stories examining Orthodox Jewish life. The collection became a bestseller and earned its author the PEN/Malamud Award. But there would be no quick follow-up, not with his novel on slow simmer.

“It took me years to find the voice and the characters’ final form,” he said. “It took a really long time to create what I take deathly seriously: this language that is English and Spanish. To me, they’re speaking Spanish.”

Englander doesn’t speak much Spanish, but his Hebrew is very good. Not only did the New York native grow up in an Orthodox home, not only was he a devoted yeshiva student, he also lived in Jerusalem for several years.

It was there that Englander acknowledged his calling to write, and where he composed many of the stories in “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” By the time the book came out, he was deep into the novel. But after so many years cloistered in his West Side apartment, hauling his laptop to the nearby coffee house and keeping his idea top secret, he has reemerged into the public sphere.

“It’s hugely disorienting,” Englander said of his new role as marketer-in-chief. “I’m a creature of habit, a private person who writes all day. Now I’ve never been so busy, and never been so tired. It might be more overwhelming if I had one second to think.”

Despite the years he put into the novel, and despite its political backdrop, Englander eschews polemics or political soapboxes.

“‘I shall educate the world’ is not the way I think,” he said. “I wrote [the novel] because it obsessed me and was important to me. It’s a nice side thing that people might learn about this dark time. It’s strange that in our hemisphere a lot of people don’t know about [the Argentine dirty war].”

That’s not to say Englander is indifferent to reader response to his book. “It’s nice to be out there,” he said about mixing it up with critics and the public.

And as for any parting thoughts about having spent 10 years on this one project, the 37-year-old writer said, “It’s a weird thing to try one’s hardest.”

Nathan Englander will appear 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, S.F. Tickets: $8-$10. Information: (415) 292-1233 or online at www.jccsf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.