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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

Nathan Englander

" But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks in boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. "

Reviewed by Brian George

Nathan Englander’s debut collection of short fiction caused something of a sensation in the literary world when it was published in 1999. It’s not hard to see why. These nine stories, which chronicle the experiences of a range of Jewish people, in settings as diverse as wartime eastern Europe, Russia under Stalin, contemporary New York and Jerusalem, communicate something profound and universal about humanity. 

Englander achieves this with a prose style that manages to combine wit, dark humour and even slapstick farce with an eye for what makes human existence genuinely tragic. The opening story in the collection, The twenty-seventh man, describes the fate of a group of Jewish writers summarily condemned to death on Stalin’s orders. What makes the story original is that the party of condemned men consists of twenty-six established writers, many quite famous, plus one unknown amateur scribbler whose name has been put on the list by a clerical error. This enables Englander to add simultaneous layers of pathos and absurdity to the central depiction of the brutal consequences of bureaucratic totalitarianism. As the writers spend their last night crammed together in disgusting police cells, the unknown, Pinchas Pelovits, wrestles with the story he has been writing. Just before the execution he recites his completed story, and is rewarded with the comment from one of the famous writers that he has produced a masterpiece. Englander, though, wants to ensure that we don’t jump to any facile conclusions about the redemptive power of art. He finishes the story with a clear-eyed, but not sensationalised, depiction of the actual execution. The sense of loss, of the horror of inhumanity, is extremely sharp: 

Bretzky fell atop the other two. He was shot five or six times, but being such a big man and such a strong man, he lived long enough to recognise the crack of the guns and know that he was dead. 

Not all the stories have subject-matter as harrowing as this. In Wig we watch middle-aged Ruchama act out her obsessive quest to regain the lost beauty of her youth by making the perfect wig for herself. Ruchama’s obsession leads her into a tangle of evasiveness, lying and eventual public humiliation. In the final words of the story Englander shows his remarkable talent for merciless exposure of his characters’ absurdities while simultaneously getting the reader to empathise with the passions that drive them: 

Ruchama can feel people looking, the whole of the city watching. Worth every penny and every shame, she thinks, for one slow spin, hair on her head and mirror in her hand, leaning back, beautiful.

The whole collection is suffused with a strong sense of the absurd. In The Gilgul of Park Avenue the main character experiences an unusual conversion in the back of a New York taxi, realising in a sudden flash that he is "the bearer of a Jewish soul". He sets about acting on this epiphany with all the zeal of the new convert, causing his wife to react with an antagonistic incredulity that again manages to combine hilarity with profound sadness: 

I’ve been waiting for your midlife crisis. But I expected something I could handle, a small test. An imposition. Something to rise above and prove my love for you in a grand display of resilience. Why couldn’t you have turned into a vegan? Or a liberal Democrat? Slept with your secretary for real. 

Englander is extremely good at taking an apparently banal, absurd premise and letting the situation uncoil to reveal deep truths about his characters and their relationships. In the collection’s title story a rabbi gives a man whose wife is refusing to sleep with him special dispensation to visit a prostitute, with a view to relieving the "unbearable urges" of the title and ultimately to save the marriage. There is a great deal of humour in the story, but at the same time it unfolds with a grim inevitability, leading to unforeseen consequences that are genuinely tragic. 

Every story in the collection is of a high standard, but if I had to choose one that stands out it would have to be The Tumblers. During the second world war, a ragged group of orthodox Jews from eastern Europe find themselves compelled to impersonate a troupe of acrobats in order to avoid being transported to the death camps. Englander manages the difficult task of exploiting the vein of absurd, derisive humour inherent in the situation while at the same time making us keenly aware of the terrible historical tragedy his characters are trapped in: 

It was an absurd undertaking. But then again, Mendel thought, no more unbelievable than the reality from which they’d escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing Jews… why not pass as acrobats and tumble across the earth until they found a place where they were welcome?

Brian George lives in South Wales. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals, and he was a prizewinner in the 2001 Rhys Davies Competition. His first collection of short stories, Walking the Labyrinth, is published by Stonebridge Publications.

Brian's other Short Reviews: Jayne Anne Phillips "Black Tickets"



PublisherFaber & Faber

Publication Date: 1999

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner: Pen/Malamud AWARD, 2000;  Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction, 2000

Author bio: Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has won prestigious awards and has appeared in numerous anthologies. His story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was published in 1999. The Ministry of Special Cases, his first novel, was published in 2007. Englander was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker. After living for some years in Jerusalem, he currently lives in New York City.

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