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Nearly twenty years ago, historian Peter Novick (2000) opened his landmark study The Holocaust in American Life by asking "Why here?" and "Why now?" Novick's queries emerged from the fact that, by the turn of the century, the Holocaust had become an identity-defining event for American Jews, amid the waning influence of other potentially unifying factors. In quick succession, Novick discards religiosity, cultural practices, and Zionism as sites of belief around which Jewish-American identity can cohere, since, as he points out, all of these are either scantily applied or hotly contested. In their absence, he writes, "what American Jews do have in common is the knowledge that but for their parents' or (more often) grandparents' or great-grandparents' immigration, they would have shared the fate of European Jewry." Thus, via Maurice Halbwachs's concept of "collective memory," he claims, "We choose to center certain memories because they seem to us to express what is central to our collective identity. Those memories, once brought to the fore, reinforce that form of identity. And so it has been with the Holocaust and American Jews" (7). As if to compound Novick's point, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in October 2013 reported that 73 percent of American Jews cited "remembering the Holocaust" as "an essential part of what being Jewish means to them," a higher proportion than those who gave any other response. This suggests that Novick's claims have held true well into the twenty-first century.

Yet while Novick's questions have proven crucial in the field of Jewish-American history, they are out of sync with recent trends in Jewish-American fiction. Indeed, Nathan Englander's 2007 novel The Ministry of Special Cases, set in 1976 Buenos Aires but written from the vantage point of mid-2000s New York, is but one swell in a broader current. (1) Over the past decade, Jewish-American novelists have increasingly abandoned the here and now--that is, the twenty-first-century United States--in favor of elsewhere and elsewhen. Embracing an aesthetic of distance, these writers have opted to set their novels at a temporal and spatial remove from the milieux in which they themselves are writing. Looking, for example, at the Jewish-American novelists who have received awards from the Jewish Book Council in the area of fiction in the past decade, almost none of them did so on the back of novels set entirely, or even largely, in the contemporary United States. These winners include Alan Gratz's Refugee (2017 Young Adult Literature), Carol Zoref's Barren Island (2017 Debut Fiction), Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink (2017 Book Club Award), John Benditt's The Boatmaker (2015 Debut Fiction), and Peter Manseau's Songs for the Butcher's Daughter (2008 Fiction) (National Jewish Book Council, n.d.). Moreover, this trend toward spatiotemporal displacement extends to recent counter histories, such as Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, and much bruited about critical favorites, such as (Canadian) David Bezmozgis's The Betrayers, Jonathan Safran-Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, and Nicole Krauss's Forest Dark. (2) So, even though Peter Novick's observations on the centrality of Holocaust memory in American Jews' collective identity are highly pertinent, the questions that arise in contemporary American Jewish literary studies are essentially the inverse of those he once posed: Why not here? and Why not now?

As a means of answering these questions, the primary goal of this essay is to introduce and situate the literary device I call the "anachronotope." The anachronotope is an inversion of Mikhail Bakhtins "chronotope," literally "timespace," which describes the fundamentally symbiotic and inextricable relations between time, space, and narrative in the novel. The anachronotope, as will be discussed later, describes a novelistic condition in which the narrative and the timespace, or setting, are discordant--as the prefix "ana-" implies, the narrative works against place and against time. Disconnected thusly from the narrative, the anachrono-topic setting becomes merely a container or reliquary for anxieties, fears, and desires that, in a sense, "belong" somewhere else. This will ultimately be explained and clarified in a treatment of Nathan Englander's 2007 novel The Ministry of Special Cases, which takes place in Argentina in 1976 during and after the ouster of Juan Peron's widow and successor President Isabel Martinez de Peron, a period of state terrorism euphemistically termed the "Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional" (National Reorganization Process), or more colloquially, the Dirty War. We will reach this concept via a somewhat circuitous route, first through the Jewish-American anxieties produced by the so-called Holocaust "memory boom" of the 1990s and 2000s, reflections on that anxiety in historiographical and literary studies, and Julian Levinson's contention that contemporary Jewish literature should be read as "counterethnography." As ever, changes in collective identity and cultural thinking reverberate through literature and demand the invention of new forms, new genres, new voices, and new devices. The Jewish-American turn toward the anachronotope--which is, in the final analysis, an index of pervasive mnemonic-identitarian anxieties--is but one example.


The construction "mnemonic-identitarian anxiety" itself deserves serious consideration, especially when used, as it is here, to describe the twenty-first-century psycho-cultural condition of (white, middle class, Ashkenazi) American Jews. It begins with the assertion that, for most Jews in the contemporary United States, memory itself forms the core of group identity, and that memory and identity are so relentlessly imbricated that to be an American Jew is by definition to remember, and thus those who do not remember sufficiently may find themselves accused of not being sufficiently Jewish. This point was eloquently plotted in The Holocaust in American Life, and although in recent years scholars have stepped up to challenge Novick's claims about American Jewish remembrance in the postwar period, the linkage between memory and identity achieved by the 1990s has been absorbed deeply enough to constitute a prima facie argument in the recent scholarly discourse, which now focuses not whether American Jews conflate memory with identity, but on whether they should. In light of this consensus, this article uses the hyphenated term "mnemonic-identitarian" somewhat unproblematically, insofar as it describes an observed phenomenon.

At the same time, Jewish-American "anxiety" and its connection to both memory and identity remain the subject of a heated, ongoing debate. In his 2007 essay "A Flawed Prophecy? Zakhor, the Memory Boom, and the Holocaust," Gavriel D. Rosenfeld returns to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's seminal text Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, which itself coincided with the publication of The Ministry of Special Cases. (3) Rosenfeld begins by describing Zakhor as "an anxious book." Nevertheless, he claims,
[It] is clear that many of the anxieties that underpinned Zakhor were
unfounded... notably, the conquest of memory by history... [has] not
come to pass. Ironically enough, the reverse has proven to be the case,
as the discipline of history has faced an enormous challenge by the
emergence of what has been called the memory "boom." (508)

This does not mean, according to Rosenfeld, that the present hypermnesiac discourse lacks for anxiety; it is merely anxiety of a different kind and with a different root cause: "However much Yerushalmi may have been prescient in sensing a post-Holocaust Jewish gravitation towards myth... [and] anxieties about the future of Jewish historical consciousness, [he] failed to anticipate the anxieties that the prominence of Holocaust memory eventually generated within certain Jewish circles" (518). That is to say, contra Yerushalmi's predictions, the mnemonic anxiety experienced by twenty-first-century Jewish thinkers emerges not from a lack of memory but from an overabundance.

This mnemonic-identitarian anxiety has been further distilled and demystified in more recent texts in both historiography and literary criticism. In Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century, Jordana Silverstein (2015) highlights two forms or sources of anxiety that she observed in the Holocaust pedagogies practiced in the United States and Australia. On the compulsion of Jews to view themselves as perpetually at risk, she writes, "[There] is one thread that concerns all of the teachers... the problem, or the anxiety, that after the Holocaust the Jews' place in the world is precarious.... This ambivalence results in an overwhelming anxiety that permeates the Jewish communit[y]" (3). At the same time, she also evinces a different source of internal conflict for contemporary Jews in the developed world, or as she puts it, "[I]n the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, where Jews are in fact comfortable within the... national locations in which they find themselves.... [T]he anxiety becomes one of a lack of difference" (13). By contrasting a felt sense of precarity with the lived experience of security, Silverstein illustrates the post-Holocaust formulation of what could be called the classic neurosis of Jewish modernity: the fear that both particularity and universalism can, in different and shifting measures, endanger the Jewish future.

Bringing these cultural and historiographical observations to Jewish literary studies, both Karl A. Plank and Brett Ashley Kaplan diagnose and describe this cultural condition in texts that invoke Englander's well-received 2013 collection of short fiction What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, focusing specifically on the titular story. While Plank (2016) does not use the word "anxiety," his essay "Decentering the Holocaust: What Bezmozgis and Englander are Talking About" emphasizes what is at stake for twenty-first-century Jewish writers who attempt to buck the trend of the Holocaust memory boom. In an introductory discussion of Art Spiegelman's "Father Knows Best," Plank summarizes the conundrum of second-and third-generation Jewish-American writers with admirable concision, writing,
It is compelling to remember the ordeal of suffering, the times and
places where one has experienced profound affliction or known it to be
present in one's family, community, or people. At the same time... it
is dangerous to place that experience at the center of one's identity
or to let another do so, as if it were the sum of one's life and
inheritance. When one forgets, one forfeits something essential to
one's dignity, something tangled in the moral fiber of one's being.
When that memory is rendered absolute, however, one may find one's
humanity no less diminished.

In challenging the centrality of Holocaust memory to twenty-first-century Jewish identity, then, Bezmozgis and Englander "pushed back against such a diminution by calling into question the effects of what was so important to [their] precursors in the last half of the twentieth century: namely, the tendency to see the Holocaust as the central and defining experience of what it means to be a Jew" (134). Going further, Plank sets up a dichotomy between Holocaust denial and its "equally problematic opposite," "Holocaust devotion," which "takes the form of an escalating memorialization of trauma that eventually requires its own category to be fulfilled: ultimately, that the Jew suffer" (135). For Plank, then, Bezmozgis and Englander's courage lies in challenging this deeply held, but ultimately unhealthy, mnemonic-identitarian mode. In so doing, Plank explains, "these authors display the consequences of an absolute devotion to the Holocaust, the hierarchies of suffering it creates, and the ethical harm it may do in subsequent generations" (137).

Interestingly, when Plank turns his attention to Englander's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank"--which has received, perhaps deservedly, a great deal more critical attention than The Ministry of Special Cases--he evokes spatiotemporal dislocation almost in passing to illuminate the difference in approach to Holocaust memory of the protagonist and his wife, Deb, when their guest Mark tells a humorously unromantic story about his father, a Holocaust survivor. For Deb, Plank tells us, "the Holocaust has an absolute power that continues to exert its pressure on the present.... Given her idealization of Holocaust survivors (and guilt at her distance from them), her seeing the present in this way also derives from her desire to be like them, to share in their world even if that means transforming her situation into a version of theirs." For the unnamed protagonist, on the other hand, "we recognize the distortion [Deb's approach] creates... the year is not 1937 and they are not living on the edge of Berlin" (146; my emphasis). So, while Plank may not specifically locate "anxiety" in Englander's work, he clearly identifies the spatiotemporal dislocation that, I argue, indexes precisely the anxiety at issue here. Put another way: in Plank's interpretation of Englander's work, distance is a function of dissonance.

In Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth (2015), Brett Ashley Kaplan defines Jewish Anxiety as a phenomenon that occurs when "tension between the fear of victimization and fear of perpetration creates an immense amount of hysterical, neurotic, self-questioning. The etiology of the disease, the actual source of the anxiety, is rarely ever identified and thus remains perpetually untreated" (1). Roth, she goes on to explain,
uses Jewish anxiety--as a doubled anxiety around past and future
victimization as well as a phobia about becoming the very thing one has
been historically conditioned to loathe most, that is, a
perpetrator--in order to analyze the spectral presence of the repressed
other within the always unstable confines of any given identification.

Likewise, in the conclusion, Kaplan turns to Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" in order to illustrate the ways Jewish anxiety emerges in post-Roth literature. (4) "Like Roth," she concludes, "Englander finds the Holocaust very present to Jewish-American characters who, even though their grandparents may be from New York, still identify across the Atlantic with European Jews and their stories of survival or victimization" (164). Here, as in Plank's essay, the anxiety of affective dissonance is implicitly cited as a function of the characters' spatiotemporal dislocation from the source of their felt trauma.

Though fascinating, Kaplan's victim/perpetrator dichotomy is not itself at issue here; more important is the sense that Jewish anxiety fundamentally emerges from an unresolved dialectic. The unresolved dialectic--in this case between victimhood and perpetration--is either utterly unresolvable or unconsciously left unresolved because doing so would lead contemporary Jewish group identity to the edge of an existential cliff. Indeed, when taken together, all of the scholars in this section present a series of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable, dialectics: memory versus history, fear of persecution versus the experience of privilege, Holocaust denial versus Holocaust devotion, and victim versus perpetrator. All of these dichotomies are crucially connected to Jewish-American collective identity, and, because they are unresolved, create a kind of collective psychic pain, here called anxiety.

This series of failed dialectics also illuminates several key underpinnings not only of contemporary Jewish-American anxiety writ large, but also of Nathan Englander's project in particular. First, it must be understood that these anxiety-ridden dialectics emerge in part from the extent to which twenty-first-century American Jews regard remembering and forgetting as absolutes that are always already morally encoded as mitzvah and sin respectively. Second, this same Jewish community tends to treat memory and identity as coextensive, and in so doing collapses any barriers between past and present. Because the present cannot by any means be separated from it, the past is given free rein to impose its narrative structure, its moral valence, and its affective prerequisites on present events.

At the same time, the difference between the remembered past and the lived present--for example, the difference between Berlin in 1937 and Florida in 2012--produces anxiety, even as that observable difference is diminished in cultural discourse. If the past is, as L. P. Hartley once put it, a "foreign country," American Jews feel culturally and morally obligated to live as dual citizens. Furthermore, they persistently invest their own Jewishness in memories of Holocaust trauma, whether or not that fatal precariry resonates with their own lived experience in the contemporary United States. At the same time, as both Plank and Kaplan imply but do not explore, these failed dialectics index the extent to which Jewish-American anxiety is expressed in literature through implicit or explicit spatiotemporal dislocation and a desire for a state of suspension between memory and forgetting, devotion and denial. That is where the anachronotope comes in.


In "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) coins the term "chronotope" writing, "In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history" (205). He goes on to emphasize the connection between a novel's chronotope and its genre, illuminating the extent to which time, space, and narrative work in harmony to make a novel what it is: "[T]he chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins.... It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing-forth [sic], the representability of events" (532).

An anxious variation on the chronotope, the "anachronotope" relies a priori on Bakhtin's conviction that time and space are insuperable elements of an event and its representation. For example, it would not ultimately be accurate to say that The Ministry of Special Cases is set in "Argentina" or "1976"; while both statements would be true on their own, they would not capture the particularities of the 1976 Argentina chronotope in which Englander attempts to situate his narrative. At the same time, unlike the chronotope, identifying the anachronotope reveals a palpable tension between the narrative and the timespace in which it is plotted. (5) If the Bakhtinian chronotope captures the symbiosis between time, space, and event, the anachronotope shows a relationship that borders on parasitism, in which the chronotope is merely a container for a narrative that works against time and against place. Put another way, if for Bakhtin the chronotope is where time bleeds into space, an anachronotope is where Other time bleeds into Other space to create a spatiotemporal location that is precisely characterized by being elsewhere and elsewhen. The result is a work of fiction that is both anachronistic and anatopistic.

Although the anachronotope as a concept may have broader applications with regard to, for example, counter histories and climate fiction, this article is concerned with what it says about The Ministry of Special Cases and by extension about Jewish-American literary trends in the twenty-first century. It is thus important to emphasize that, much like the Jewish-American anxiety described above, the anachronotope can be helpfully expressed as a failed literary dialectic, wherein synthesis between timespace and narrative remains elusive. This, as will be discussed later, is certainly true of The Ministry of Special Cases on the level of meta-analysis. For Englander, Argentina becomes a reliquary for his and his audience's Jewish-American anxieties that seemingly cannot be represented in the setting to which they ultimately belong. Equally important, however, is the fact that within the novel the characters themselves grapple with the ostensibly impossible resolution between remembering and forgetting the Jewish past, seek out and sometimes find latent spaces between the canon and the archive of identity, and (fail to) deal with their own anachronistic and anatopistic anxieties.

In The Ministry of Special Cases, Englander plots his commentary on Jewish forgetting and self-erasure through a series of decidedly unsubtle metaphors. The novel opens on protagonist Kaddish Poznan and his son Pato skulking through two Jewish graveyards that were once an undivided whole: a wall protects the respectable Jewish dead of the United Congregations from their embarrassing ancestors, a cabal of prostitutes, pimps, and racketeers once known as the Society of the Benevolent Self. Fearing the incipient military junta, the congregants desire even more insurance against the ignominy of their past. Thus Kaddish, the fatherless son of a Jewish prostitute named Favorita, is hired by various well-to-do Buenos Aires Jews to scrape the names off the headstones of their disreputable forbearers and thus erase the generational connections that might prove socially or politically damaging. The narrator dispassionately describes this practice as a justifiable, if paranoid, precaution to take in this volatile climate: "It was 1976 in Argentina. They lived with uncertainty and looming chaos.... It was no time to stand out, not for Gentiles or Jews. And the Jews, almost to a person, felt that being Jewish was already plenty different enough" (Englander 2008a, 4). Furthermore, "Though bodies mounted, there wasn't yet any real burying. It was a period better defined by what was dug up.... It was then that the children of the Benevolent Self acknowledged what Kaddish had always known--the wall separating the two cemeteries wasn't so high" (9). Clearly, 1976 Argentina is a more precarious chronotope for Jews than the one in which Englander is writing. Yet the underlying idea that "being Jewish was already plenty different enough" and that Jews therefore attempt to assimilate by expurgating certain chapters of their history is by no means unique to this perilous moment.

Still less unique are the embedded questions: first, without a stable mnemonic-identitarian canon, what makes a Jew a Jew? Second, what should that canon contain, if it is to be the basis of Jewish identity? Where and when can Jews access the repertoire of memories and commemorative practices that define Jewishness? And finally, would any threat, no matter how credible, justify an erasure of Jewish memories and kinship ties? In the context of Jewish-American literature, neither the questions themselves nor the discourse to which they belong are anomalous, rather, the difference inheres in the chronotope in which they are emplotted. The peril of this historical moment is what allows Englander to posit some interesting and quite provocative answers.

When requesting Kaddish's services, Lila Finkel describes a novel framework for probing the dichotomy of memory and forgetting. '"Which man is better off,'" she asks,
"the one without a future or the one without a past? That's why the
wall went up. So that one day Jews might join together, so we could
stand in the United Congregations Cemetery out of joy, not sadness, and
all of us, looking toward that wall, might together forget what's on
the other side." (7)

Special attention should be paid to the nuances of this passage, particularly because, as Englander's commentary on memory and forgetting reveals itself, Lila's heterodoxy begins to look more and more like a thesis statement for the novel as a whole. First, Finkel's proposal that Jews could construct their collective identity not through memory but through forgetting is striking in its deviation from the tendency among Jews to treat remembrance as the shibboleth of Jewishness and to abjure forgetting as a cultural sin. Instead, Lila suggests that assimilationist or even defensive forgetting need not be a source of anxiety for the Jews because it does not necessitate a loss of peoplehood. Rather, by confining the past to the other side of the wall, Jews can find a sense of community in knowing what is behind them but still looking forward together. Yet that too is striking since, as before, the Jewish conflation of memory and identity prevents barriers between past and present from being erected.

In suggesting the possibility of cordoning off the past without destroying it, Lila decouples forgetting from erasure and posits the desirability of a latent space that functions like a mnemonic-identitarian archive, which stores the traumatic past without either obliterating it or allowing it free rein to act on the present. The theoretical valence of Lila's vision emerges more clearly in the context of memory studies scholar Aleida Assmann's 2014 talk "Forms of Forgetting." Like Englander's Lila, Assmann rejects the assumption that remembering is an ethical imperative, arguing instead that "the meaning and value of forgetting solely depends on the social and cultural frames within which it is constructed" (1). To bolster this claim, she posits seven types of forgetting, some productive, some destructive, and some neutral. Most pertinent here are two of the positively charged modes: "preservative forgetting" and "selective forgetting." "Preservative forgetting" allows cultural memories to "exist in a state of latency or transitory forgetfulness, waiting to be rediscovered as fragments of relevant information, to be placed into new contexts and to be charged with new meaning through acts of interpretation" (5). Selective forgetting, subtitled "the power of framing," enlarges on that process by demonstrating how those suspended memories can be productively reframed. These two types of forgetting circulate throughout the novel, repeatedly challenging the Jewish characters to rethink their relationship to memory.

Kaddish's unique suitability for the role as agent and mechanism for preservative forgetting emerges from the beginning, as we are told, "So desperate were [their children] not to be linked to the Benevolent Self that they turned to the only one who wouldn't let it go" (Englander 2008a, 9-10). But why is Kaddish Poznan--orphan, hijo de puta, outcast Jew, pariah of pariahs--the "only one" who can be trusted to deface the graves of ancestors he refuses to disinherit? Because Kaddish Poznan--whose name refers to both the Jewish prayer for the dead and the Polish word meaning known or recognized--provides a necessary linkage to the past, one that still needs to be, and ultimately can be, exiled from the present. Like the cemetery wall, and indeed like the Argentine anachronotope that Englander constructs, Kaddish contains a past that can be neither destroyed nor allowed to encumber the present.

Consider this scene, in which another family pays Kaddish to unpick their mothers name, worked in gold, from the parochet in the defunct Benevolent Self synagogue. After Kaddish has finished, her name "looked worse":
That is, Esther Zuckman looked better than it had in many years....
Protected from the light, from the air, cocooned in gold, the velvet
underneath was unfaded. The pattern of the needlework outlined each
letter. Kaddish had achieved the opposite of what had been intended.
Esther's name had never before shone so brightly.

Clearly, despite her family's attempt at erasure, Esther Zuckman lives on not only in the trace of her name created by light and shadow but also quite literally in Kaddish's body. Holding up his "swollen hands" to the light, he sees that "a thousand gold splinters picked up a glint, and it was in his cupped hands as if he were looking at the stars" (m). Kaddish, the rootless orphan, acts as a reliquary for the memory of a woman whose children wish to erase her. Yet her family will never know this--from their perspective the forgetting has been achieved, their anxiety assuaged.

By looking at Aleida Assmann's formulations, we can better understand the transmogrification that takes place in this scene. As before, the name "Esther Zuckman"--here constructed as text, person, artifact, and monument all rolled into one--is not destroyed by this removal. Rather, it is transmitted into Kaddish's body, which in Assmann's (2008) terms would be considered the archive, especially in that it is constructed as "the opposite of the memorial space of the church." As Assmann tells us, we consign to the archives those texts, persons, and artifacts that have lost their "place in life," either because they have become irrelevant or because they pose a threat to the political present. In so doing we give them "the chance of a second life that considerably prolongs their existence." Importantly, however, when materiel is archived it becomes "inert"; it is "stored and potentially available, but it is not interpreted" (102). Under the aegis of preservative forgetting, "the archive creates a space of latency between passive forgetting and active remembering," a process in which Kaddish's body is both agent and vessel (Assmann 2014, 3).

Nor is Kaddish's the only body that the novel constructs as archive. After Pato is disappeared by the military authorities, Kaddish and his wife Lillian embark on equally misguided searches for their lost son. Having met with a mysterious "navigator," who tells him the fate of the desaparecidos (they are dropped from a plane, drugged and naked, into the Rio de la Plata), Kaddish has come to accept that his son is dead. Lillian, on the other hand, having paid her entire life savings to a military priest for the chance to ask him a single question, has been told that Pato is alive. At this point the novel's perspective switches abruptly to that of a teenage girl in a prison camp, assigned to a bunk once inhabited by Pato. Hidden in her mattress she finds balled up notes, all of which have been inscribed simply: Pato Poznan. She reads them, swallows them, and when she in turn is thrown from a plane,
The notes were still protected in her stomach, still readable below all
that water, hidden inside the girl, herself swallowed up in all that
dark. There was no perverse miracle as in the days that had passed when
that poor girl's body could have been caught in a net... the moment in
a thousand Jewish fables where the diamond appears in the fish's belly,
where the notes would be harvested.... The memory is the girl's alone,
and that's how it will stay. Still, in this horrible time when the
junta would weave a nation's truth from lies, Lillian would have been
happy and Kaddish would have been happy fine girl for one
fine day believed in Pato Poznan--both living and dead. (Englander
2008a, 304)

Like Kaddish, in whose body Esther Zuckman is embedded, this anonymous girl becomes the container for Pato's memory, which is neither destroyed nor discoverable. However, in this iteration of the "body as archive," Englander also adduces both a break with Jewish narrative tradition--this is no whimsical Jewish fable--and an emotional payoff that could potentially emerge through the transition of Pato from canon to archive. While it may seem strange that the Poznans would be "happy" to know that their son's name is preserved in the stomach of a dead girl, here the narrator echoes and reaffirms Lila Finkel's claim that through preservative forgetting the Jewish community could actually find "joy."

These moments further suggest that if Jews could adapt narrative conventions that allow the beloved dead to remain in their place, they could see their way toward a more positive collective identity not overburdened by the past. But the Poznans never experience this happiness, and we come to understand that their desperate search for Pato was always destined to fail, due largely to a recognizably Jewish flaw in their basic assumptions, namely, their insistence on using the Holocaust trauma as a guide for understanding their immediate circumstances. More to the point, the Poznans' misrecognitions compound Englander's underlying claim that Jews need to undertake preservative and selective forgetting in order to reposition themselves toward the here and now.

Lillian and Kaddish assume from the beginning that their son was targeted by the junta because he was Jewish, and cling to this belief despite a total lack of evidence. For example, even though Argentina actually does play an explicit role in Holocaust history as a well-known haven for fugitive Nazis, the presence of any such Nazis is never mentioned, let alone factored into the danger that surrounds the Poznans. In fact, the novel itself makes it seem far more plausible that Pato was murdered because he was a leftist, because he participated in the underground music scene, and because he had the fatal misfortune of being apprehended without identification. This confusion comes to a head when, after his son is first caught and released by the authorities, Kaddish takes it upon himself to burn books that he thinks could put his son's life in jeopardy. Only he does not know which texts are actually dangerous. Since Jewish history--specifically the Holocaust--is his primary frame for apprehending danger, he destroys The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm, a German-Jewish social psychologist who fled the Nazis in the 1930s, Sartre's post-WWII treatise on anti-Semitism Reflections on the Jewish Question, and Mein Kampf. He leaves behind a range of Russian, socialist, and liberal democratic literature that would have been perceived by the far-right militia as much more sinister. In other words, Kaddish is preparing for the dreaded knock of the Schutzstaffel, when he ought to be protecting his son from the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. Only when two men in suits come to the apartment and drag Pato away--along with three of his unburned books--do we realize that, despite his best intentions, Kaddish "just hadn't burned all the right ones" (120).

Kaddish's tragic misapprehension emerges directly from his anxiety-laden, mnemonic-identitarian framing of the present. As mentioned earlier, Assmann proposes "preservative forgetting" and "selective forgetting" as Nietzschean antidotes to precisely this kind of problem. Preservative forgetting creates a space for us to hold in abeyance those memories that we can neither cling to nor let go of, while selective forgetting enlarges on that process by demonstrating the power of how those suspended memories can be productively reframed. According to Assmann (2014), the essential function of selective forgetting is in articulating and adapting collective identity, as she explains, "the desire to belong... regulates the interaction between remembering and forgetting.... It is only when one memory frame is replaced by another that excluded memories have a chance of being re-appropriated by the group" (5). Yet she also recognizes that this transfer of memories from canon to archive can be an immensely painful process, which often predicates a considerable reimagining of a group's collective identity.

Like the affluent Jews he serves, Kaddish is motivated by a self-defensive "desire to belong" that leads him to try to erase the Jewishness that makes him and his family "already different enough." Even though the novel never invokes the Holocaust by name, we are given to understand that his attempt fails because he has not successfully reorganized and reframed Holocaust memory. Or perhaps he cannot, if only because the canonicity of the Holocaust as the pinnacle of Jewish precarity is too firmly entrenched. To archive and thus de-sacralize Esther Zuckman is one thing, but the Holocaust, with its texts, its people, its artifacts, and its monuments, is sacred to a much higher degree. As Naomi Seidman (2006) and others have pointed out, Holocaust narratives have been elevated in twentieth-century Jewish culture to a hallowed position shared only with the Septuagint. So, while Kaddish's wrongheaded book burning does not ask us to forget the Holocaust, it does compel us to challenge its seemingly immoveable frame, and particularly its ability to narrativize the present in unproductive, even dangerous, ways.

So too does Lillian Poznan allow her Jewish memory to lead her down false paths in search of her son. In one scene, she goes to beg one of Buenos Aires's most powerful Jews, Rabbi Feigenblum, to add Pato to the synagogue's official list of the disappeared. Once again, the Holocaust is metonymized by objects that make up the setting. As Lillian waits in the rabbi's ornately appointed office she notices that "[c]losest to Feingenblum's desk--to keep him full of humility and lest he never forget--was a yellow Jude star, pinned to velvet in a mahogany case" (Englander 2008a, 239). In theory, this symbol of state-sponsored murder is intended to heighten Feigenblum's sensitivity--although it is worth noting the odd syntax of "lest he never forget," which does not index a straightforward imperative to remember--but his response to Lillian's request is blunt and cold. Condescendingly he tells her that the synagogue's list comprises only those names that the government permits them to display, and that to include Pato in their tally would mean provoking the juntas wrath in a way that the congregation will not condone. Enraged and desperate, Lillian lashes out:
"You work with them.... You channel the grand tradition of Jewish
diplomacy: Never acknowledge catastrophe until it's done.... Afterwards
you'll raise a tall building around it. You'll enlist a great Jewish
after-the-fact army to fight with all of hell's fury over how it is to
be remembered.... I want my son, my Pato, home alive. Not the Museum of
the Jewish Disappeared." (245)

Whereas Kaddish's book burning demonstrates the flaw in "thinking Holocaust" at the wrong moment, Lillian's jeremiad takes aim at institutions and practices of Jewish memory, reflecting contemporary (though not contemporaneous!) concerns about whether the canonization of certain modes of thinking about and symbols of the Holocaust have damaged Jews' ability to live productively in the present. From this scene, and others here discussed, emerges Englander's coherent and multilayered plea for the Jewish community to integrate preservative and selective forgetting into their identitarian discourse. So long as Jews perpetually construct past as present, he seems to say, they can have no viable future. Yet, ironically, in order to make this argument, Englander himself retreated from the present, albeit in a different way. However, moving beyond an analysis of how anachronotopic discourse circulates within the novel to a consideration of how the novel itself circulates within larger literary and cultural trends requires a different mode of reading.


In "Subjects in Question: Jewish Storytelling as Counterethnography," Julian Levinson (2018) proffers a hermeneutic of Jewish-American literature that illuminates how The Ministry of Special Cases, as anachronotope, speaks both to and against the contemporary Jewish-American culture whence it emerged. In the essay, Levinson offers "two models of conceptualizing the Jewish story":
The first [is] the reflection or ethnographic model. It looks to
stories for a summation or reflection of a set of values, attitudes,
predilections, and sensibilities that are understood to epitomize the
collectivity. The second focuses on the dynamic encounter between
teller and audience.... This model, which can be called an
interrogative or counterethnographic model... understands stories as a
dynamic process involving a liberation of fantasy and sometimes its
demystification, a playing out and vicarious fulfillment of desire as
well as a psychic jolt, leading, possibly, to a self-reckoning....
[These models] call upon interpreters to read for different effects. We
might say that they look in different places to discover a story's
meaning: in the first case, in some imputed cultural ethos imagined as
a more or less coherent set of values, perspectives, and ideas; in the
second case, in the changing concerns, anxieties, and fantasies of
audiences. (288)

In applying this hermeneutic, Levinson asks that scholars "consider texts as dynamic responses to Jewish readers, situated in their own time and occupied with specific quandaries, dilemmas, and/or fantasies" (294). As becomes clear not only through interviews with the author but also in reviews of the novel, Ministry is demonstrably not an ethnography of the Argentinean Jewish community it depicts. Rather, it is almost certainly, if perhaps unconsciously, a counterethnography of the contemporary Jewish-American audience for which it was written. Understanding this, moreover, is the key to a broader interpretation of the anachronotopic literary trend.

In a spate of interviews given after the publication of Ministry, Englander is repeatedly asked why he chose to set the novel in 1976 Argentina, especially given that he has not lived there, that neither he nor his family is Argentinean, and that the majority of his previously published short fiction takes place on his "home turf" of New York and/or Israel. Englander never quite answers the question, but the explanations and evasions he gives are nonetheless fascinating, speaking directly to the cause and effect of the Argentinean anachronotope. For example, he tells Cressida Leyson of The New Yorker,
I very much fell in love with Jerusalem [while living there]. And I was
very much dedicated to that city. And watching it come apart during
those years... I just (unconsciously, but I see it now in retrospect)
became obsessed with cities that turn on their fiercely dedicated and
loyal residents again and again. When writing, I think one looks to
tell the most pressurized version of any story.... Buenos Aires, and
especially Buenos Aires during the period of the Dirty War, was one of
the extreme cases of a city with just endless potential for greatness,
where politics violently and repeatedly invades the lives of its
residents. (Englander 2010, n.p.)

For Englander, Buenos Aires is not necessarily important in and of itself; it becomes meaningful as a setting insofar as it feels like Jerusalem but is not Jerusalem. Indeed, he affirms this notion in his interview with John Fox, saying that in the end Buenos Aires "feels hugely like a Jerusalem metaphor" and that his imagining of it was "affected by... showing up in New York just before September nth" (Englander 2008b).

Equally important is Englander's claim that in choosing Buenos Aires he was satisfying his desire for a "more pressurized" setting. This explanation recurs in several conversations, as when he tells Ronald Sklar, "I like a pressurized story.... I also wanted to look at a community where certain people pretend that other people are pariahs. Yet the community can't actually exist without these so-called pariahs" (Englander 2007). In essence, what Englander calls "pressur[e]" is synonymous with what I have here called "precarity." Englander wanted to set his novel against a backdrop of precarity, more specifically a precarity somehow different from yet connected to the precarity of early twenty-first-century New York and Jerusalem. Yet, in writing the novel he discards the clearest (Jewish) link between New York, Jerusalem, and Buenos Aires, namely, that all three are crucial loci in the postwar geography of Holocaust memory and especially the adjudication of crimes against humanity. For a writer whose work is deeply immersed in modern Jewish memory, and Holocaust memory in particular, this most obvious of connections is conspicuously absent.

Indeed, none of these factors--the "pressurized" situation, the disloyal city, the community-pariah dichotomy--are in any sense unique to Argentina's Dirty War. Moreover, what becomes clear throughout the interviews is that Englander's attraction to the 1976 Buenos Aires anachronotope is its distance and foreignness to his and his readers' milieux. For instance, in his interview with Fox, he claims, "To get really personal and be really open, I've written distant--you know, like a distant setting--if I really want to get to the things that make me tick, or that need to be worked out in my head." Englander goes even further in his interview with Sklar. At first, he asserts the same personal desire for distance, saying, "I like to write 'distant.' I feel safe at a distance." Next, without being prompted, he brings in the Holocaust as way of emphasizing the novel's universality: "The book is really about time, a continuum. How much do we use hindsight? Everything is history. Even the Holocaust happened under the most modern circumstances for the time." Finally, he adduces the foreignness of 1976 Argentina not only to his own experiences but also to his readers': "People [in North America] tend to think of [people in South America] as so distant and so foreign." Englander's statements fall nicely in sync with the peculiarities of Jewish-American anxiety heretofore described; the repetitions and evasions he gives in describing the novel's genesis express, perhaps unintentionally, an uneasy, almost painful dissonance between the story he thinks he wants to tell (his own experience in Jerusalem), and the setting (1976 Argentina) he believes will allow him to tell it effectively. He admits that Ministry is "really about" Jerusalem, about New York City, about 9/11, about the Holocaust, and yet can never quite explain why 1976 Argentina was the necessary backdrop for the working-through of those issues.

This odd dissonance carries over into the novel's reception. Despite receiving a certain amount of praise, several reviews of the novel note the ambivalence in Englander's choice of setting, in particular questioning his ability to represent 1976 Argentina authentically. Writing for The New Republic, Ruth Franklin observes, "the location is peculiarly non-specific.... [T]he characters in Englander's novel occasionally eat a steak or drop a Spanish word, but there is nothing necessarily Argentine about this book.... The place and time, though specified, is curiously generalized, even generic" (Franklin 2007, n.p.). Will Blythe concurs: "Englander might as well have airlifted Gimpel the Fool out of the shtetl and landed him in the broad avenues of Buenos Ares, where this novel is set.... Not only have civil rights been suspended in this novel, the rules of realistic fiction have too. Englander's Argentina is a mythological realm, ruled more by the gods of literature than by the generals of the junta" (Blythe 2007, n.p.). Wyatt Mason makes a similar critique, albeit one qualified with plaudits, saying, "Although Englander draws Buenos Ares quite sketchily--he depends more on a generic idea of the city--his evocation of the tensions the Poznans live under has nuance and power" (Mason 2007, n.p.). These critics' sense of a generic Argentina that bears a sketchy, elusive relationship to Englander's more nuanced and effective invocation of Ashkenazi literary tradition and Jewish ideas of kinship is precisely the tension that indexes the anachronotope. Unlike the chronotope, in which time, space, and event achieve a mutualistic harmony, in an anachronotopic novel, timespace and narrative end up pushing against one another, leaving the work in a state of suspension between the two.

From a postcolonial perspective, it is easy to draw from these reviews a fairly harsh critique of Englander's Argentinean anachronotope. Nathan Englander, an author from the Global North, selects a timespace from the Global South, empties it of all but the most superficial particulars, and replaces them with his own "first world" anxieties. He chases a fantasy of precarity, which he feels at home but cannot express there, and thus uses his writing as a kind of affective tourism. The archive, moreover, is a classic tool of colonialism, and the very idea of choosing whether to remember or forget is an unrecognized privilege, routinely denied to those who actually find themselves at the mercy of authoritarian regimes. Thus construed, the anachronotope is merely a new form of literary imperialism. (6)

But perhaps a bit more generosity is in order. True, Ministry teaches the reader little if anything about Argentina. But it does deepen one's understanding of Jewish-American anxieties and how they condition the production of literary anachronotopes. If, as proposed earlier, writing the anachronotope means working against time and against place, then an anachronotopic novel would be expected to enact a discomforting dissonance. If one grants, moreover, that alongside this literary dislocation is the sense among some American Jews that their identities are also out of sync with reality, then perhaps what the reviewers see as inauthenticity is actually an authentic narrative that does not belong to the setting in which it was placed. What emerges there is a persistent anxiety about the boundary between past and present, between memory and forgetting, between the Holocaust ghost and the living self. The unresolved dialectic of timespace and narrative is a compelling refraction of the unresolved dialectics at the heart of twenty-first century American Jewish anxiety. For all of its flaws, The Ministry of Special Cases is a faithful rendition of the anxious, dislocated narratives that anxious, dislocated identities may produce.


Ten years have passed since The Ministry of Special Cases was published, and undoubtedly the debate over whether and how to use the Holocaust as a political metaphor and as a mode of focalization has only become more urgent. Are comparisons between the machinations of the Trump administration and those of the Nazis constructive or destructive? Benefic or distracting? Do these comparisons even help us understand the inhumanity of Customs and Border Protection agents, or the polo-shirt-and-khakis white supremacism of rallies lit by tiki torches? Or are we, like Kaddish, simply burning the wrong books? Naturally a great deal of ink has already been spilt attempting to answer these potent and valid questions. However, it is also worth noting that the Holocaust as historical-affective frame tale is not the only catalyst for the quasi-imperialist displacement of Jewish-American anxiety.

On July 10, 2018, Tablet Magazine published an essay by Lee Smith entitled, "Puerto Ricans and Jews, Adrift Together on Their Islands." The piece is, quite frankly, a mess of non sequiturs, misrecognitions, and uncritical comparisons. Smith begins by anxiously griping about rising Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose platform demands solidarity with Puerto Rico and a denunciation of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He then pivots to his recent trip to Puerto Rico with the American Jewish Committee's Latino Jewish Leadership Council, tasked with surveying the damage and recovery efforts in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria. There he is surprised to learn what nearly any Puerto Rican could have told him: the hurricane is only one part of the social and economic problems facing the island. In a twist, he also discovers that his Puerto Rican grandmother may have been secretly Jewish.

From that point the essay descends into a tense tug of war between the Puerto Rican and Jewish parts of the story. Smith does momentarily concede that the U.S. government has mistreated Puerto Rico, using it as a pawn in economic machinations, but he has a great deal more disdain for the local authorities who, he writes, "[R]un [Puerto Rico] like a third-world country.... A major employer like the power authority was seen as a source of political patronage and mismanaged for nearly half a century. That, more than federal neglect, is why it's been so difficult to get the lights on and keep them on." At the same time, he adduces an odd analogy between Jews and Puerto Ricans, claiming, "Clearly, there are similarities between the Puerto Rican and Jewish communities. There are nearly seven million Jews living in the United States and roughly six million Puerto Ricans, both concentrating in the same states, New York and Florida." Smith's comparison is nonsensical--do Puerto Ricans and Jews share some kind of positional and communal affinity because both groups are concentrated in two of the country's most populous states? Proximity and comparability are not the same thing. And this is not even to mention the factual inaccuracies in his claim. First of all, according to 2015 data from the Jewish Databank, significantly more Jews live in California than in Florida (Sheshkin and Dashefsky 2015)." Second of all, the largest community of Puerto Ricans in the United States lives in Puerto Rico, which, as Smith seems to have forgotten, is indeed part of the country.

But this logical fallacy, it turns out, is necessary for Smith's next rhetorical move, in which Jews become the heroes of Hurricane Maria, set against the incompetent, ungracious, and antisemitic Puerto Ricans. He repeatedly touts the efforts of the AJC and IsraAID in counterbalancing the government's shortcomings, focusing on tarps distributed in the predominately Afro-Caribbean town of Loiza, where the mayor is appropriately "grateful for the help" of a "young woman from California who was distributing Israeli-made water-purification devices." Despite this largesse, he warns, "it is not clear that all Puerto Ricans are as grateful as the impoverished residents of Loiza," citing an antisemitic opinion piece published in Un Nuevo Dia, which blamed the Jewish bankers of Wall Street for the island's economic woes. But even in context of this troubling incident, Puerto Rico itself is treated as irrelevant, since "the more serious concern for Jewish organizations is here on the mainland, where the character of the political institution that attracts the loyalty of most Jews and Puerto Ricans alike is in a state of flux." Thus, Smith returns to the issue that truly occupies him, that "[t]he progressive wing of the Democratic party is increasingly hostile to Israel." In fact, over dinner at the governor's mansion, he "wondered if it was useful to compare Puerto Rico to Israel.... Why couldn't Puerto Rico become a new tech and service center?" If only the misguided islanders would follow the Israeli example: "It's certainly possible. The only problem is that Puerto Ricans themselves don't buy it. They're leaving the island." Unfortunately, Smith seems to complain, even though Puerto Ricans are like the Jews, they aren't enough like the Jews to know what's good for them. Clearly, Puerto Rico is but a cipher here, an occasion to protest what Smith sees as an unfair targeting of Israel that spitefully ignores their economic victories and global humanitarianism. Thus, "Adrift" is a rather brutish version of what Englander does in Ministry, repurposing an ostensibly third world space as a container for first world Jewish problems. What is actually a story about Puerto Ricans coping with a devastating storm and an uncaring government becomes, suddenly, a story about the American Left's ambivalent rejection of Zionism, an issue about which Smith is clearly so anxious that he cannot write about it without the cover of what Englander might call a more "pressurized" setting.

Granted, making a comparison between Smith's essay and The Ministry of Special Cases is unfair to Nathan Englander, who has all the sensitivity to detail, self-deprecating humor, and desire to write in and of the world that Smith lacks. Yet the pairing is useful as an illumination of several nexus points for the further study of anachronotopes. First, it exemplifies the (perhaps unsurprising) extent to which Zionism, like the Holocaust, is a source of anxiety that conditions geographical displacement as a surrogate for affective displacement. Second, it presents a new vantage point from which to ask: is the American Jewish community capable of posing dialectical questions to themselves in the here-now of their own experiences and if not, why not? Finally, it demonstrates not only the value of the anachronotope as a literary device--it allows Englander to meaningfully "world" Argentina in a way that Smith utterly fails to do with Puerto Rico--but also its value as generic classification that might make visible an important phenomenon in Jewish-American cultural thought.


NAOMI TAUB is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is also affiliated with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society and the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. Her dissertation, "Distant Proximities: Whiteness and Worldedness in Contemporary Jewish Literature," brings together texts from the United States, South Africa, Israel, and the UK in order to demonstrate how contemporary Jewish literature continually stages multiple, multilayered, and often post-traumatic racialized proximities that transcend national boundaries and ultimately reveal Jewish whiteness as always-already worlded.


My deepest gratitude goes out to the many people who sat patiently across the table while I tried to explain what I meant by "anachronotope," who stuck around to read one, two, even three drafts, and who gave me thoughtful and challenging feedback at every step of the process. I would particularly like to thank Brett Kaplan, Kadin Henningsen, Carl Thompson, and J. Alex Boyd for going above and beyond to help me write this article. Without your help, it would have remained an underdeveloped conference paper moldering somewhere on my hard drive.

(1.) A point of clarification: although all quotations in this article refer to the 2008 Vintage International paperback of The Ministry of Special Cases, I refer to 2007 as the publication date because that is when the first edition hardcover was released.

(2.) As I see it, one of the values of identifying the anachronotope is that it gives us a lens through which to see these books, which superficially belong to a variety of genres, in culturally meaningful relation to one another. We will return to this point in the conclusion of the article.

(3.) Perhaps this timing is not as coincidental as it seems. This is not to say that Englander purposely timed the publication of Ministry with the anniversary of Zakhor. Rather, it seems to me that Zakhor and Ministry are representative bookends of one period of Jewish-American cultural discourse on the Holocaust, which entered a distinctly different phase with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

(4.) It's interesting to remember that What We Talk About came out five years after Ministry, though it much more closely resembles Englander's first book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999). Clearly something caused Englander to revert to his earlier literary sensibility, although here we can only guess what that might be.

(5.) In this sense, the anachronotope does bear certain similarities to what Safet HadziMuhamedovic calls "schizochronotopia" in his book Waiting for Elijah: Time and Encounter in a Bosnian Landscape. He, too, is clearly concerned with how identities and traumas can act upon our perception of the chronotopes that we and our characters inhabit. However, the two terms diverge in that the anachronotopic is a literary (and perhaps filmic) device that, to put it in crude Freudian terms, is more neurotic than schizoid. There are also clear differences in both the spatial and temporal relationships between American Jews and the Holocaust on the one hand and Bosnians and the Bosnian genocide on the other.

(6.) There are also anachronotopic novels that handle these postcolonial issues much more effectively--Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union immediately comes to mind. However, in this case I believe that Englander's partial failure is more culturally and theoretically interesting than Chabon's success. Moreover, Union has already received a great deal of scholarly attention and Ministry very little.

(7.) To be exact: 1,233,000 in California versus 652,000 in Florida.


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Author:Taub, Naomi
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2019

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