Academic journal article MELUS

"Making One Story"? Forms of Reconciliation in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Nathan Englander's the Ministry of Special Cases

Academic journal article MELUS

"Making One Story"? Forms of Reconciliation in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Nathan Englander's the Ministry of Special Cases

Article excerpt

In Nathan Englander's 2007 novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, Kaddish Poznan watches fourmen abduct his teenage son, Pato. Pato becomes one of the 30,000 desaparecidos, or disappeared, in Argentina's Dirty War of 1976-1983. (1) As Kaddish traverses Buenos Aires in search of Pato, he turns to the people he most despises for help. He listens to a former navigator admit to throwing children out of planes into the River Plata. He seeks out the rabbi who has excluded him from the Jewish community since his birth because he is the son of a prostitute, and he asks how to bury his son without a body.

The navigator lends Kaddish his parka to protect him against the cold, and the rabbi loans Kaddish a suit jacket since Kaddish's clothes are filthy and torn. For the rest of the novel, Kaddish wears both items over his own shirt. His enclosure in the jackets of the two men figuratively dissolves the boundaries between them. His skin ceases to demarcate him from the navigator and the rabbi when it is relocated inside their clothes and, symbolically, inside their bodies. This symbolic bond represents a hope for reconciliation and a connection different from companionship or forgiveness--neither of which emerges from Kaddish's meetings with the two men.

Like The Ministry of Special Cases, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (2002) employs inversions of insides and outsides and the resulting disruptions of boundaries to explore ways of connecting people divided by atrocity. Like Englander, Foer is often described as part of a new guard in Jewish American fiction (Royal 2). Foer, like Englander, is concerned with "what it is to lose your world" and how that experience can alter a person's self-definition (Englander, "Conversation"). And like Englander's text, Foer's novel centers on the search for a victim of mass violence. A young American named Jonathan Safran Foer traverses western Ukraine seeking the village of Trachimbrod and the woman he believes saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. He, his Ukrainian translator, Alex, and the driver and "expert," Alex's grandfather, confront the complex circumstances that engendered post-Holocaust resentments between Ukrainians and Jews. Here too, the borders between the men dissolve. Writing to Jonathan after the trip, Alex observes, "With our writing, we are reminding each other of things. We are making one story, yes?" (144). Weeks earlier, as the two men lie beside a monument to the murdered inhabitants of Trachimbrod, Alex adopts Jonathan's childhood memory of sitting under his grandmother's dress and erases the psychological space that separates them when he imagines them lying "under a large umbrella, or under a dress" (190). As in The Ministry of Special Cases, the novel's images of physical connection represent moments of potential entry into a new relationship.

The reconciliations envisioned in these novels entail the development of what John Borneman calls a "sense of beginning" (282), an interaction in which each person comes to recognize the needs and experiences of the other. In both novels, such reconciliations arise from the acknowledgment of a shared legacy of violence and of mutual questions of identity that stem from it. This recognition involves admitting events that may cause shame, trauma, and legal risk. It also rests on acknowledging distinctions such as the differences between active collaboration and forced violence and understanding the overlapping of identities (as a person might be at different times a collaborator, a bystander, or a victim). Yet far from resting on a unified view of the past, for both Englander and Foer the acceptance of a shared history involves a concomitant willingness to respect conflicting narratives. This acceptance of disparate voices belongs to a long Jewish history. As Vincent Brook puts it, "a Jewish tradition of multi-vocality may be traced back to the Torah, whose ambiguities invited a host of heterogeneous views in the Talmud and the Midrash," the rabbinical commentaries on the Jewish Bible (2). …

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