The Ministry of Special Cases

The Ministry of Special Cases

3.6 10
by Nathan Englander
     
 

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From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina's Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won't accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good

Overview

From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina's Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won't accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence. When the nightmare of the disappeared children brings the Poznan family to its knees, they are thrust into the unyielding corridors of the Ministry of Special Cases, a terrifying, byzantine refuge of last resort. Through the devastation of a single family, Englander brilliantly captures the grief of a nation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Who is this Nathan Englander, so young in novelist years, but already possessed of an old masters voice?... One reads this novel in awe of Englander's talent. —The New York Times Book Review“A mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory.” —Los Angeles Times“[A] tour-de-force…. A few pages into The Ministry of Special Cases, it becomes clear how much [Englander] has to bring to the topic: pitch-black humor, a skeptical affection for his characters, and the narrative ability to trace the impact of fascism-with-a-modern-face on a cluster of lives.” —The Seattle Times
Since the publication in 1999 of Nathan Englander's debut work, a collection of short stories entitled For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, readers have eagerly awaited the novel that the Jerusalem-based author was rumored to be writing. The Ministry of Special Causes rewards the wait, telling the tale of Jews threatened by Argentina's "Dirty War" of the 1970s and '80s. The main character, Kaddish Pozman, has a clandestine cemetery job as an eraser of tombstone surnames, at the behest of Buenos Aires Jews frantically trying to conceal their heritage and protect themselves from the looming government terror. A haunting novel; a promise fulfilled.
Will Blythe
Beautifully written, The Ministry of Special Cases nonetheless presents a conundrum. Englander does in fiction what his absent God cannot: create a world. And then he peoples that world with characters that he treats better than history ever would. Such decency is not a large failing in a young novelist. If only the junta had been half so kind.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Morey's dulcet theatrical tones offset the messy lives of the characters in Englander's first novel about Jewish residents of 1970s Buenos Aires who live in fear of Argentina's vicious military dictatorship. Against the backdrop of the dirty war conducted against leftists and activists, Kaddish Poznan scratches together a living vandalizing the gravestones of Jewish criminals who are embarrassments to their families, even in eternal slumber. Morey struggles manfully with the book's religious terminology and outbursts of Spanish, but his reading is too mannered to render the vibrancy of Englander's prose. His pauses are often too long, and his line readings sometimes lean awkwardly, and puzzlingly, on certain words. Nonetheless, Morey's professional assurance means that, certain flaws notwithstanding, his reading flows along without overly noticeable interruption, accurately conveying the menace lurking behind every word, every sentence of Englander's death-haunted tale. Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 19). (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Kaddish Poznan, who's been scraping along at the edge of society, suddenly finds himself in the middle of Argentina's infamous Dirty War when his son disappears. We've waited many years for Englander to follow up his remarkable story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, with a first novel. Look for the reading group guide; with a 100,000-copy first printing and a 12-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The fate of Argentina's Jews during the 1976-83 "Dirty War" is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this stark first novel from the author of the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999). Englander focuses tightly on the family of Kaddish Poznan, who scrapes together a living by obliterating despised surnames (those of "the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires . . . [and] their . . . whores") from gravestones in a cemetery unvisited by their scandalized relatives. This earns him little respect from his wife, Lillian, who works for a life-insurance firm, and their 19-year-old son Pablo (nicknamed "Pato"), a university student whose political idealism estranges him from his parents' strategies for survival, as their country's ruling junta hunts down "undesirables" and innocent citizens swell the ranks of "the disappeared." A context of uncertainty and terror is gradually defined: Lillian invests in a steel door for their apartment; Kaddish trades his services to a plastic surgeon for rhinoplasties that may make him and Lillian look "less Jewish"; and the precautionary burning of their son's books in the family's bathtub sends Pato angrily away from them and into the clutches of their oppressors. Englander's perfectly engineered plot then takes the distraught parents into the belly of the beast as they importune the police and the eponymous Ministry (a Kafkaesque nightmare of doubletalk and indifferent brutality). They have a chilling confrontation with a prosperous general and his heartless wife and more despairing encounters with a phlegmatic relief worker, a priest who can do good only by circumventing moral action and a self-described "monster" who survives byperforming the dirty war's dirtiest deeds. One stunning twist discloses Pato's fate in a way neither parent will ever accept, and the novel climaxes where it began, in a cemetery, where Kaddish hopes, against hope, to beat the murderers at their own game. A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander's story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375704444
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/01/2008
Series:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
608,761
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

[One]

Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another's space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe. Kaddish led Pato through uneven rows over uneven ground on the Benevolent Self side. He cupped his hand over the eye of the flashlight to smother the light. His fingers glowed orange, red in between, as he ran his fist along the face of a stone.

They were searching for Hezzi Two-Blades' grave, and finding it didn't take long. His plot rose up sharply. His marker tipped back. It looked to Kaddish as if the old man had tried to claw his way free. It also looked like Two-Blades' daughter had only to wait another winter and she wouldn't have needed to hire Kaddish Poznan at all.

Marble, Kaddish had discovered, is chiseled into not for its strength but for its softness. As with the rest of the marble in the graveyard of the Society of the Benevolent Self, Hezzi's marker was pocked and cracked, the letters wearing away. Most of the others were cut from granite. If nature and pollution didn't get to those, the local hooligans would. In the past, Kaddish had scrubbed away swastikas and cemented back broken stones. He tested the strength of the one over Two-Blades' grave. "Like taking a swing at a loose tooth," Kaddish said. "I don't even know why we bother—a little longer and no sign of this place will remain."

But Kaddish and Pato both knew why they bothered. They understood very well why the families turned to them with such urgency now. It was 1976 in Argentina. They lived with uncertainty and looming chaos. In Buenos Aires they'd long suffered kidnap and ransom. There was terror from all quarters and murder on the rise. It was no time to stand out, not for Gentile or Jew. And the Jews, almost to a person, felt that being Jewish was already plenty different enough.

Kaddish's clients were the ones who had what to lose, the respectable, successful segment of their community that didn't have in its families such a reputable past. In quieter times it had been enough to ignore and deny. When the last of the generation of the Benevolent Self had gone silent, when all the plots on their side were full, the descendants waited what they thought was a decent amount of time for an indecent bunch and sealed up that graveyard for good.

When he went to visit his mother's grave and found the gate locked, Kaddish turned to the other children of the Benevolent Self for the key. They denied involvement. They were surprised to learn of the cemetery's existence. And when Kaddish pointed out that their parents were buried there, they proved equally unable to recall their own parents' names.

Harsh a stance as this was, it was born of a terrible shame.

Not only was the Society of the Benevolent Self a scandal in Buenos Aires, at its height in the 1920s it was a disgrace beyond measure for every Argentine Jew. Which of their detractors didn't enjoy in his morning paper a good picture of an alfonse in handcuffs, a Caftan member in a lineup—who didn't feel his reviling justified at the sight of the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires accompanied by their pouty-lipped Jewish whores? But this was long over in 1950, when Kaddish found himself locked outside the gate. That terrible industry as a Jewish business was by then twenty years shut down. The buildings that belonged to the Society of the Benevolent Self were long sold off, the pimps' shul abandoned. There was only one holding that couldn't possibly fall into disuse. Disrepair, yes. And derelict, too. But, like a riddle, what's the only thing man can build that is guaranteed perpetual use? The dead use a graveyard forever.

That cemetery was also the only institution established by the pimps and whores of Buenos Aires that was built with a concession from the upstanding Jews. Hard-hearted as those Jews were when it came to the_Benevolent Self, they couldn't turn away in death. The board of the fledgling United Jewish Congregations of Argentina was convened and an impasse reached. No Jew should have to be buried as a Gentile, God help them. But neither should the fine Jews of Buenos Aires have to lie among whores. They shared their quandary with Talmud Harry, who, as leader of the Benevolent Self, sat at the head of a board of his own. "You lie with them living," Harry said, "why not cuddle up when they're dead?"

Eventually it was agreed. A wall to match the one surrounding the graveyard would be built toward the back and a second cemetery formed that was really part of the first—technically but not halachically, which is how Jews solve every problem that comes their way.

The existing wall was a modest two meters, a functional barrier meant to set off a sacred space. The establishment of a Jewish cemetery in a city obsessed with its dead had signaled a level of acceptance of which the United Congregations only dreamed. They'd wanted to show their ease in its design.

But being accepted one day doesn't mean one will be welcome the next—the Jews of Buenos Aires couldn't resist planning for dark times. So atop that modest wall they'd affixed another two meters of wrought-iron fence, each bar with a fleur-de-lis on its end. All those points and barbs four meters up gave that wall an unwelcoming, unclimbable, pants-ripping feel. The United Congregations allowed themselves one hint at grandeur in the form of a columned entryway capped with a dome. Before any balance was achieved among the Jews, this was the one they'd struck with the outside world.

Two sets of board members stood watching the new wall go up. The Westernized Liberator's shul rabbi had declined to attend. It was the young old-country rabbi who paced nervously, making sure certain standards were met and horrified to find himself presiding.

When the mortar had dried, the governors of the United Congregations returned for the installation of the fence. They were surprised to find the pimps assembled on their side. It was a sight those upstanding Jews had hoped never to see again. A line of famed Benevolent Self toughs stood before them, including a still-robust Hezzi Two-Blades, Coconut Burstein, and Hayim-Moshe "One-Eye" Weiss. Towering over Talmud Harry was the very large, very legendary Shlomo the Pin.

"The wall is plenty high enough," Talmud Harry said. "A fence is an insult that need not be made." The Jews of the United Congregations didn't think it was an insult; they thought it would match nicely with the fencing all around. A number of ugly threats were already implicit. There was nothing much Harry needed to add. He pointed at the wall and said only, "This is as separate as it gets."

Their faces went long. They turned to the rabbi, but he couldn't support them. A solid two-meter wall was a separation by any standard: It would suffice for mechitza or sukkah or to pen a goring ox. While the finer points were being argued, Talmud Harry gave the nod. A jittery Two-Blades began to reach, and Shlomo the Pin rolled the fingers of his right hand into a tight cudgel-like fist. Feigenblum, the first president of the United Congregations and father to the second, saw this out of the corner of his eye. He took it as an excellent moment to declare the young rabbi's word binding, and a speedy departure was made.

The pimps didn't want to be second-class any more than their brothers who'd demanded a wall in between. When they put up the facade to their cemetery they commissioned a replica—but one meter higher—of the grand domed entrance that welcomed mourners into the United Congregations side.

Thank God again that it was settled. It allowed Talmud Harry to die in peace and be spared the sight of his own sons, lawyers both, facing Kaddish in the living rooms of their big houses and denying whence they came. It was the same when meeting with One-Eye's daughter and the son of Henya the Mute. All that these children had was fought for and paid for the Benevolent Self way.

It was Lila Finkel—whose mother, Bryna the Vagina, was said to have an incisive perspicacity as well as a cunt of pure gold—who took it upon herself to set Kaddish straight. "Take a breath," she said. Kaddish took one. "Do you smell it in the air?" she asked. Kaddish thought he might. "That's what good fortune smells like, Poznan. It's the season of our prosperity and it's never come this way before."

It was the heyday of Evita, of the liberated worker and her shirtless ones. Factories were rising up under Peron, and Lila drew for Kaddish a picture of the middle class rising with them and making room for the Jews. All she asked was that he join them in looking forward. No reason to dwell on ugly memories soon forgotten. Kaddish wasn't convinced, and Lila's patience began to wear. "Think," she said, and gave a good solid tap to her temple. "Which man is better off"—another riddle—"the one without a future or the one without a past? That's why the wall went up. So that one day the 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."

Except that, for Kaddish Poznan, the future looked no brighter than the past. He'd not yet met and married Lillian; it was before the birth of his son. Without his mother Favorita's grave to visit, Kaddish had no one at all.

"So what?" Lila said. "In every people's history there are times best forgotten. This is ours, Poznan. Let it go."

Among the children who didn't acknowledge their parents' existence, someone else aside from Lila had been unnerved by what Kaddish said. When he went back to the cemetery bent on getting in, Kaddish found a chain had been added to the gate, a sloppy weld applied, and, for good measure, tar used to gum up the keyholes in both locks. He gave it a kick that echoed off the dome and sent a pigeon swooping down from above. Kaddish thought about what Lila said and went around to the United Congregations side. He entered through its always-open gate, he walked through its manicured grounds, and reaching it—reaching up, Kaddish scraped his shoes against brick as he pulled himself to the top of that wall. Perched there and taking in the Benevolent Self, Kaddish wondered if there'd ever been a wall built that someone hadn't managed to cross. This one wasn't much of a challenge. It wasn't meant to stop the living but to separate the dead.

As a solution it was fine with Kaddish and, as word spread, with the rest of the Jewish community from both sides of the wall. Kaddish was occasionally spotted climbing over to the Benevolent Self or dropping back down between United Congregations plots. No one acknowledged he was there. If they could forget every last person buried in that ruffians' graveyard, it wasn't difficult to add one more. From then on, it was as if he wasn't. The Jews forgot Kaddish Poznan too.

This is how it stayed for a very long time. It was how Kaddish was treated after he fell in love with Lillian and when she, God bless her, fell in love right back. The Jews of Buenos Aires made room for her in their forgetting—no small matter, considering her family aligned itself on the United Congregations side. (Pity also the parents. What to do with a daughter who insists on marrying an hijo de puta? Why did Lillian have to find herself the only Jew proud to be a son of a whore?) This is how the situation remained for them when Evita died two years later, and in five, when Peron was driven off. Kaddish's visits to his mother's grave became ever more frequent after Pato was born. His mother was the family's single unbroken link to a past.

Not even Kaddish's name was family given; it was the young rabbi who'd picked it and, no more than a half kindness, it was the most the upstanding Jews had ever shown. Sickly, weakly, and grasping at survival, Kaddish barely lived through his first week. His mother—a faithful woman—begged that the rabbi be summoned to Talmud Harry's to save him. The rabbi wouldn't cross the threshold. Standing in the sunlight out on Cashew Street, he peered into the vestibule at the infant in Favorita's arms. His judgment was instant. "Let his name be Kaddish to ward off the angel of death. A trick and a blessing. Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned." Assuming no fathering beyond the physical (and commercial) act, the rabbi gave Kaddish the last name that goes with the legend—it's from Poznan we know that a man's offspring through a prostitute will come to no good. Favorita repeated the name: Kaddish Poznan. She held out Kaddish and gave him a turn, as if trying it on for size. The rabbi didn't smile or take leave. He simply stepped out into the gutter, feeling he'd done right by the child. Let the name Kaddish save him. And if the boy is righteous, let him get out of the other one on his own.

Had Kaddish known the origins of his name, he wouldn't have felt cursed. He was happy with his family. He believed in a bright future for his son. And as creaky as his knees were when he climbed that wall, as lightly and with as little oomph as he tried to land, he hadn't given up on his own self either. If she'd acknowledged him in the intervening twenty-five years, Kaddish would have told Lila Finkel she was partly right. Hard as life got, there was something to living it with a little hope. Maybe that was why Kaddish never needed his fellow Jews any more than they needed him.

This was the balance maintained through the Montoneros and the ERP and after Ongania was overthrown. During those two decades, the community prospered and attained status. And Kaddish was convinced he'd have prospered most of all had any of his schemes worked out.

The Jews didn't feel any great need to take stock when Peron returned to power. It surely didn't make them think about Kaddish Poznan's treatment all those years. The community did give a collective twitch when, during Peron's welcome home, there was a small massacre in the welcoming crowd. There were some in Once and Villa Crespo who bounced their knees nervously throughout Peron's short reign and two brothers in two big houses in Palermo who began to bite their nails in earnest when he died.

Meet the Author

Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Anthology, and The Pushcart Prize. Englander's story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf, 1999), earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kauffman Prize. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2003 and a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2004. He lives in Manhattan.

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Ministry of Special Cases 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
BklynBette More than 1 year ago
This is my first Nathan Englander book .I purchased it for my book club. I would have put the book down after the first 15 pages but finished because I wanted to try to understand why it was written and if I could take away anything from this novel. I could not have cared less about the characters and their lives. The politics of the country was not new information. I will not recommend this to anyone.
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Arie More than 1 year ago
I did not enjoy this book, but I learned from it. I learned one more mechanism for man's inhumanity to man. This has overtones of "The Trial" by Kafka, and of "De amor y de sombra" by Isabelle Allende. At times it reminds me of "Darkness at noon" especially the brutality of the police, and their uncaring dismissal of any possible consequences to their actions. This books feels real. It illustrates the uses of Beaurocracy by Totalitarian regimes, the fear it induces in the population, and the human tendency to cringe rather than get involved. Its humor bothered me, the subject was too serious for levity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading this book about Argentina's 'Dirty War' was difficult. Nathan Englander draws the reader into the horror of having a loved one 'disappeared', and the despair and frustration encountered by the two main characters. I was reminded of 'Catch 22' and the writing style of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I think it is a story of a part of the world's history about which everyone should be aware. It is an emotionally difficult read, but an important one. There are other levels to the story, also important, which make the book well worth one's reading it. Relationships within one's society, family, and the difficulty in knowing oneself are made an interesting and integral part of the story by the author.