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The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novelby Nathan Englander
"The awkward dance between tragedy and farce continues through the book's final pages, as the truth of what happened to Pato subtly unfolds and Kaddish endures the unintended consequences of yet another desperate scheme. In the end we are left, again, with the image of a figure at the window: this time it is Lillian, who does not actually believe that God might orchestrate her rescue, but hopes for it all the same. Is the gilgul of Grub Street waiting for his own divine intervention?" Ruth Franklin, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
The long-awaited novel from Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Englander's wondrous and much-heralded collection of stories won the 2000 Pen/Malamud Award and was translated into more than a dozen languages.
From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, 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 — and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear. 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, the refuge of last resort.
Nathan Englander's first novel is a timeless story of fathers and sons. In a world turned upside down, where the past and the future, the nature of truth itself, all take shape according to a corrupt government's whims, one man — one spectacularly hopeless man — fights to overcome his history and his name, and, if for only once in his life, to put things right. Here again are all the marvelous qualities for which Englander's first book was immediately beloved: his exuberant wit and invention, his cosmic sense of the absurd, his genius for balancing joyfulness and despair. Through the devastation of a single family, Englander captures, indelibly, the grief of a nation. The Ministry of Special Cases, like Englander's stories before it, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness, and — despite that — hope.
"Young writers are often told to write about what they know. In his 1999 collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander spun the material of his orthodox Jewish background into marvelous fiction. But the real trick to writing about what you know is to make sure you know more as you mature. Englander's first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, conjures a world far removed from 'The Gilgul of Second Avenue.' The novel is set in 1976 in Buenos Aires during Argentina's 'dirty war.' Kaddish Poznan, hijo de puta, son of a whore, earns a meager living defacing gravestones of Jewish whores and pimps whose more respectable children want to erase their immigrant parents' names and forget their shameful activities. Kaddish labors in the Jewish cemetery at night. His hardworking wife, Lillian, toils in an insurance agency by day, and their idealistic son, Pato, attends college, goes to concerts and smokes pot with his friends. When Pato is taken from home, Kaddish learns what it really means to erase identity, because no one in authority will admit Pato has been arrested. No one will even acknowledge that Pato existed. As Lillian and Kaddish attempt to penetrate the Ministry of Special Cases, Englander's novel takes on an epic quality in which Jewish parents descend into the underworld and journey through circles of hell. Gogol, I.B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander's book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration. At times Englander's motifs seem forced. Kaddish, whose very name evokes the memory of the dead, chisels out the name of a plastic surgeon's disreputable father, and in lieu of cash receives nose jobs for himself and his wife. Lillian's nose job is at first unsuccessful, and her nose slides off her face. One form of defacement pays for another. Kaddish fights with his son in the cemetery and accidentally slices off the tip of Pato's finger. Attempting to erase a letter, Kaddish blights a digit. But the fight seems staged, Pato's presence unwarranted except for Englander's schema. Other scenes are haunting: Lillian confronting bureaucrats; Kaddish appealing to a rabbi to learn if it is possible for a Jew to have a funeral without a body; Kaddish picking an embarrassing embroidered name off the velvet curtain in front of the ark in the synagogue. When he picks off the gold thread, the name stands out even more prominently because the velvet underneath the embroidery is unfaded, darker than the rest of the fabric. Englander writes with increasing power and authority in the second half of his book; he probes deeper and deeper, looking at what absence means, reading the shadow letters on history's curtain. Allegra Goodman is the author of five books, including Intuition." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Among cruel military coups, few match Argentina's Dirty War for sheer grisly horror. The covert torture and murder of tens of thousands of people from 1976 to 1983 has now been well documented, as has the pain of families who spent decades desperate for certainty about their missing children's fates. Nathan Englander's ambitious, flawed first novel, 'The Ministry of Special Cases,' visits this terrifying... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) period, focusing on Argentina's Jews, who suffered disproportionately — by most estimates, though 1 percent of the population, they composed 10 percent of the dead. Most writers would approach this material solemnly. Englander's bold — if not entirely successful — move is his sly tone, his gallows humor. His well-received collection of stories, 'For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,' won him comparisons to Isaac Bashevis Singer and even Nikolai Gogol. The novel's setup inhabits the quirky, fablelike territory of those stories — think Kafka's 'The Trial' crossbred with John Irving's 'The World According to Garp.' Hapless hero Kaddish Poznan, son of a Jewish prostitute, earns his living rubbing out the names on headstones in a Jewish cemetery to protect living relatives from shame. His work makes his wife, Lillian, an insurance agency clerk, sick with worry, especially since Kaddish drags along their college-age son, Pato, as a partner in crime. Kaddish's big break comes when Dr. Mazursky, a prominent plastic surgeon, hires him to make disappear the headstone of his gangster father, Pinsky 'Toothless' Mazursky. When it turns out that Mazursky can't pay the promised fee, he offers nose jobs instead, for both Kaddish and the equally large-nosed Lillian. Diminutive Aryan noses would be a great way to disguise a Jewish past, if only one of the jobs wasn't badly botched. Like 'Chinatown' wannabes, Kaddish and Lillian move through a good part of this novel with bloody bandages on their faces. Lillian's nose literally slides down her face. When the military police abduct Pato from the apartment, Kaddish's name — the term for the Jewish prayer of mourning — becomes baldly symbolic. As Kaddish and Lillian struggle through the absurd labyrinth of the Argentine bureaucracy to search for their son, the novel makes a seismic tonal shift from comic to tragic. The two parts of the novel never really mesh, although Englander tries to justify the mismatch in terms of Argentina's own dramatic move from democracy to military dictatorship. When grief overtakes the couple, their marriage, mutually testy to begin with, threatens to unravel, as they take radically different approaches to dealing with the tragedy. Englander uses their divide to pose some intriguing questions about Jewish identity and assimilation. When all of the official channels fail her, Lillian turns to Argentina's Jewish community, insisting that 'the only safe place in the world for a Jew is with others.' But Kaddish mistrusts anyone in power and instead 'needed to get out on his own, to search for the seam where ... criminal and general, pimp and president, meet.' Kaddish accepts Pato's likely fate and wants to find a way to bury him so he can be properly mourned. Lillian vows to keep searching. She leaves the door to their apartment open, hoping that at any minute Pato might appear. 'It took madness,' Kaddish muses, 'for two conflicting realities to exist at once. For Lillian and Kaddish in Argentina, it also did not. Everything and its opposite. As in the case of a son that is both living and dead.' This material may be new to Englander, but it isn't really new. Many superb nonfiction books (among them Jacobo Timerman's 'Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number' and Rita Arditti's 'Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina') cover the period's horrors. Englander obviously has thought hard about how to best handle this material fictively, but despite his ample talents, not all of his choices succeed. For instance, while the novel starts with an omniscient point of view, with all three Poznans' thoughts and experiences revealed, we lose Pato when his parents do. In a climactic section, we penetrate the thoughts of a brutally tortured girl in a bunk once occupied by Pato, moments before she is pushed, alive, from an airplane. She has discovered notes written by Pato — but Englander announces that he won't reveal their contents. 'It wouldn't be right ... to share Pato's message when neither Kaddish nor Lillian will hear it, when neither parent will learn that those notes ever were.' The tone grates. It's not that literary experimentation and the horrors of war are necessarily incompatible — as Tim O'Brien's Vietnam fiction has proved. But here Englander's postmodernism comes off as a posture, a bit coy and grandstanding. Somehow, torture makes a reader lose the appetite for metafictional high jinks." Reviewed by Richard Lipez, who writes detective fiction under the name Richard StevensonLisa Zeidner, a professor at Rutgers University in Camden; her latest novel is 'Layover', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] staggeringly mature work....The bulk of this overwhelming novel...is Pozman's and his wife's attempt to locate their missing son. Four P's best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[B]listering emotional intensity....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." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Through deft, understated prose, Englander evokes the incremental way in which fear grips a community." Miami Herald
"This chilling book of intrigue examines the slow obliteration of culture and families perpetuated by forces seeking absolute political power. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Englander secures his status as a powerful storyteller with this book about the disappearance of the son of a down-and-out Jewish hustler during Argentina's Dirty War in the seventies." Details
"The combination of a gift for narrative, a proclivity for pathos, and a lode of arcane knowledge is put to great use in Nathan Englander's first novel." The Boston Phoenix
"As remarkable as Englander's evocation of a country at war with itself is, his greatest achievement might be the way he manages to do it with a lightness of touch and even a few delicately comic insertions." Edmonton Journal
The long-awaited first novel from the author of the sensational short-story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a stunning historical tale set at the start of Argentina's Dirty War, a hallucinatory journey into a forbidden city and a world of terror.
About the Author
Nathan Englander's short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander's story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.
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