This is one novel I’d hesitate a lot before offering as a present, because it’s so sad. At the same time, it’s so good that you’d want to share it. It’s a strange combination between a traditional Yiddish tale à la Isaac Bashevis Singer and a realist tragedy inspired by historical facts.
At the beginning, upon meeting main character Kaddish Poznan, the Jewish son of a prostitute who makes a living by erasing compromising names in the Jewish low-life cemetery for wealthy descendants eager for respectability, you think of quirky, sweet and sour, down-at-heel characters of the shtetl. Except Poznan lives in 1970s Argentina, when a military coup decided of a massive abduction policy (the ‘Dirty war’) to shut political dissidents up and inspire terror throughout the population. So the tale quickly becomes darker.
Tens of thousands people were “disappeared” by the military, leaving families in the desperate and Kafkaesque situation of not being able to tell if they were alive or dead, or even to prove what had happened. When Kaddish’s son Pato disappears, the Yiddish tale would see it is the result of paternal malediction thrown in a moment of rage, the realist sees it as a random act of terror following a police roundup at a rock concert.
Pato’s family then explodes in grief and undirected anger. The father can’t prove he’s dead even after getting a glimpse (thanks to his seedy connections) of these opponents’ tragic fate. The mother decides to wait for his return and throws all their money at a corrupt priest who can’t even pretend he’s alive. Only in a few elusive lines are we, readers, informed of what really happened to Pato. Even if this surrealistic page (a parenthesis, a brutal change in point of view really) makes us feel better, there is no easy way out of this book. As much as we hope for a happy ending for the traditional tale, the book takes the realistic road of a bottomless descent into despair.
Long after turning the last page I can’t measure the extent of Englander’s project. It’s a very rich book and that makes it all the more satisfying, despite the feeling of sadness. I can’t help but wonder how come a successful young Jewish novelist from New York chooses to revive the scandal of the “desaparecidos” (disappeared), a shameful episode of recent history promptly forgotten in the Western world, but by placing it in the very particular context of the Jewish lower class. I can’t accuse Englander of not knowing Judaism firsthand, but how could he tackle such a loaded issue as living under a dictatorship and the traumatism of losing a child with such a light tone? I’m not saying he shouldn’t have, and it’s always bad to set predefined limits to what literature can or can’t address, yet it’s a risky gamble. I don’t have a hard and fast rule anyway, but in that case Englander pulls it off brilliantly (yet I wouldn’t say effortlessly). He manages to put us readers in the strange position of feeling empathy towards the tragic Poznan family, yet keeping the distance of the clownish farce: ‘this is just a tale you don’t have to take seriously.’