- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

NEW YORK — You may remember Nathan Englander. He was the author of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” a debut story collection published to universal acclaim and solid sales. He was the long-haired, 29-year-old American living in Jerusalem and sustaining the spirit of such Old World masters as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nikolai Gogol.

That was eight years ago.

“It feels completely like starting again from square one,” he said recently, seated at a long table in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, discussing the long-awaited release of his second book, and first novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases.”

“I feel like the community of writers has just been so supportive, and people have generally been lovely. But I also heard from the people who say, ‘Don’t a lot of people kill themselves during the writing of their second book?’ And they start listing all of those who never finished the second novel.”

Mr. Englander is now 37, his locks trimmed, his home New York, his speech far faster than his pace of publication. Second books have been a weakness for many writers, and sometimes an end, notably for Ralph Ellison, who never completed another novel after “Invisible Man.” In Mr. Englander’s case, as in Mr. Ellison’s, the problem wasn’t writing enough, but writing too much.

His new book is a political and family drama set in Buenos Aires at the start of the “dirty war” in Argentina, when a 1976 military coup led to widespread kidnappings, torture and murder. The story was so compelling Mr. Englander couldn’t stop telling it. He wrote more than 1,000 pages, including “an enormous number of annotations,” for a book that ended up around 340 pages.

“I kept falling in love with characters and I’d tell Nathan so and Nathan would thank me and tell me he’d cut that whole section,” says Mr. Englander’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, who noted the author’s obsessive research, including “calling a geologist about the consistency of silt in an Argentinian riverbed.”

“Imaginatively, he’s totally unconstrained, but his imagined realm is populated by hard existential and material facts, and the facts are nonnegotiable,” Mr. Pavlin says. “The impact of a body hitting the water; the flow of traffic down a central avenue in Buenos Aires; the horrific ways in which rhinoplasty could conceivably fail. He fastidiously researched all of them.”

Mr. Englander refers to his time working on the novel as if he were submerged in an underwater tank, only aware when he surfaced that he had been gone for so long. But he was probably never meant to finish quickly. Short stories were no easier. One piece from his first book, “The Tumblers,” nearly “killed me,” he confides. He revised it for so long, for “maybe five years,” that he got it done by writing the story backward, finishing the last scene first.

Like “The Tumblers,” his novel is a story of how the state closes in on, and sometimes destroys, private lives. Kaddish Poznan works in a graveyard, defacing the headstones of prostitutes, whose heirs want their memories wiped out. His wife, Lillian, works in an insurance agency. Their son, Pato, is a rebellious college student increasingly out of favor with the military government. His disappearance leads his parents on a frustrating, dangerous quest to find him.

Mr. Englander had been thinking about “The Ministry of Special Cases” even before his story collection came out. He befriended some Argentines in the late 1980s, and his fascination continued as he learned more about the culture and politics of Argentina and the suspicion that remains from the brutality of the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’ve always been interested in people shaped by politics,” he says. “For instance, in New York, I run in Central Park, around 103rd Street, and I always nod at the cop who I see standing there, as if to say, ‘I’m glad you’re here. It’s dark in the park.’ I would do that in Argentina and sort of nod, and I would notice they don’t nod back.”

Mr. Englander knows something about change and rebellion. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and was schooled at a yeshiva on Long Island, only to turn against religion as a teenager and, ironically, say goodbye altogether while living in Israel. In Israel, “you always leave the opposite of how you came,” he joked.

For enlightenment, and pleasure, he turns to Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikolai Gogol and other European writers. He relates to the sadness and to the humor, to walls endlessly closing in, the sense of the world as a village populated by nosy neighbors and controlled by unfriendly forces.

“It’s voice. It’s about owning a world,” he says of his favorite books.

Mr. Englander’s stories begin when characters try to break out, as in “The Last One Way,” in which a man asks a matchmaker to kill his wife, or “Gilgul of Park Avenue,” a middle-aged Christian’s sudden conversion to Judaism. In “Reb Kringle,” a Jewish man’s attempt to be a department store Santa Claus quickly implodes.

Mr. Englander is calmer now, he says, and he is no longer so preoccupied with the divisions between Jews and Christians and faith and nonfaith. He fits in quietly on the Upper West Side, where history rarely explodes like it does in Jerusalem and where he doesn’t encounter people in the streets like the Orthodox Jewish man in Jerusalem who saw Mr. Englander and muttered “Shaygetz” — a Yiddish insult for a non-Jew.

“I’m older, a decade has gone by,” he says. “One wants to change. Certain themes stay in my work, but if it was another book about religious and secular people, it wouldn’t feel right. I haven’t been religious for a long time. What I’m interested in right now is community.”

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