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The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novel

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The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novel Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1. Kaddish is the only one of the children of the Society of the Benevolent Self—“a disgrace beyond measure for every Argentine Jew”—who is willing to acknowledge his heritage. Yet he makes his living from obliterating the names on tombstones in the sealed-off cemetery that contains his heritage. How does Kaddish see himself: as a servant of the truth and of history, or as an opportunist with no particular loyalties?

2. Why does Kaddish force Pato to work with him in the graveyard, and why does he force him to strike the chisel that will obliterate the name from the stone? As they drive home from the hospital Pato tells Kaddish, “Youre lazy. Youre a failure. Youve kept us down. You embarrass us. You cut off my finger. You ruined my life.” The narrator goes on to refer to “the grand Jewish tradition of the dayeinu . . . And central to the form is the notion that each accusation, if that had been Kaddishs only shortcoming, still it would have been enough” (p. 61). How complicated are Patos feelings for his father? Why does Kaddish so often make poor decisions?

3. The Ministry of Special Cases is rooted in Argentinas history from the time of the Zvi Migdal—a criminal organization of Jewish gangsters who were active in Buenos Aires and ran the brothels—to the time of the military junta of 1976-1983, during which thousands of Argentine citizens, mostly young people, vanished without a trace. Do some research into this history, and discuss with your group how it affects your reading of the story.

4. Kaddishs mother, Favorita, was the victim of another kind of kidnapping, a form of white slavery (p. 21). Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, poor young women from Russian shetls were seduced into false marriages and sold into prostitution in the brothels of Buenos Aires. How much control do the people in this novel have over their lives? Were told that Kaddish had “never expected a happy life; only moments of joy to carry him through” (pp. 94-95). How does Kaddishs background influence his approach to life?

5. Kaddishs negotiations with Mazursky, and the fallout from his acceptance of the offer of two nose jobs, constitute an absurdist episode in a largely tragic story. How does Englander manage to mingle comedy with his darker plot? What is the effect of his narrative style for you as a reader?

6. A chain of books including Chekhov, Lermontov, and Voltaire tells how Pato chose his patrimony: “Each book begat another. For a boy whose entire family history dead-ended on his fathers side, this is how Pato traced his line” (pp. 93-94). The second struggle—a fateful one—between father and son takes place after Kaddish has tried to burn Patos books. What do the books tell us about Pato, and why does he attempt to save them even though he understands the risk to himself if these books are discovered? Why does Kaddish curse his son (p. 116)? What does Pato mean by his parting statement, “Fathers are always fathers. Sons always sons” (p. 122)?

7. Look closely at the descriptive prose, the tone, and the pacing of Chapter 17, and discuss what this passage demonstrates about Englander as a writer.

8. It is a matter of historical fact that during the junta young people suspected of having politically subversive views were arrested, interrogated and tortured, drugged and thrown out of airplanes. Infant children of the disappeared were sometimes adopted by military families—as happens here with the general and his wife (pp. 107-08). These facts seem, perhaps, utterly surreal and fictional. How does Englander want his readers to experience history in this story?

9. Given the fact that no one (except the extremely brave woman in the bakery) will help Kaddish and Lillian recover their son, and that in their loss the parents too are negated, the novel implies that the Argentine people capitulated, in their silence, to the corruption and savagery of the junta. As Cacho says, “Everyone is sleeping deeply” (p. 126). Does the novel imply that people get the government they deserve? What might cause such passivity and acquiescence in a population?

10. What are the key elements of Lillians character, and how does she differ from Kaddish in her attempts to deal with Patos disappearance? Do you identify more with her continuing hope than with Kaddishs belief that Pato is dead? Or the reverse?

11. What is ironic about the concept of habeus corpus as a legality by which the junta protects itself from accusations of kidnapping? Why do Kaddish and Lillian need a witness in order to get a writ of habeus corpus for Pato (pp. 209, 223-27)?

12. What strategies does the Ministry of Special Cases use in dealing with the families of the disappeared? What do the people who work there, including the military priest who takes Lillians money, hope to achieve? How does Kaddish attempt to deal with the impossible demands being made by the priest and with Lillians desire to meet them?

13. Discuss Englanders decision, in Chapter 43, to introduce the character of the unnamed girl who finds Patos notes to his parents and dies without ever delivering these notes. “The memory is the girls alone, and thats how it will stay. Still, in this horrible time when the junta would weave a nations truth from lies, Lillian would have been happy and Kaddish would have been happy that, independent of them, one fine girl for one fine day believed in Pato Poznan—both living and dead” (p. 304). What is interesting about this situation in which one desaparecido bears witness, silently, to the existence of another?

14. The novel is deeply concerned with the questions of identity: we see the changing or the removal of names, the alteration of faces and of the past. In contrast to all this, the girl who finds the notes on which Pato has written his name thinks, “It was such a civilized act, writing ones name, a concrete act. It made her think she could leave a history herself” (p. 302). Why are these two sentences so important to the novel?

15. The rabbi who named Kaddish said, “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” (p. 8). Does Kaddishs name suit him? What resonance do the rabbis words take on, given the arc of the whole story?

16. The episode of the girl in the cell reveals the fact that Pato was held there as well, and that he undoubtedly shared the same fate as the girl who finds his notes in the foam mattress. So Kaddish is right about his sons fate, while Lillian is wrong. How does this knowledge affect your reading of the last final chapters?

17. Kaddishs desire to bury and to mourn his son meets with frustration when a rabbi tells him, in an ironic return to the habeus corpus problem, that he cannot bury his son if he has no body to bury. Does this constitute a final estrangement from the Jewish community for Kaddish, especially since the desire to give the dead the proper rites of burial accords with an ancient Jewish tradition? What do you make of Kaddishs attempt to trick Lillian into accepting the bones of a stranger for her sons?

18. Englander says that in writing the novel, “I became obsessed with the almost quantum-mechanical evil that is a byproduct of disappearing people. To kill a person is to deny that person a future—the basic act that is murder. To ‘disappear that same person is also, oddly, to reach in and undo the past. Its not to make them no-more. Its to make them, not-ever. It is to be undone. Its a way of fracturing the seeming unbreakable link between future and past. The question that flows through much of this novel, I guess, is: Despite the best intentions how do we-as individuals, or societies (take your pick)—contribute to our own undoing?” How would you address the ideas here, as well as the final question? [from a conversation with Nathan Englander on www.aaknopf.com]

19. What is the effect of the novels final pages? How do you imagine the rest of life for Kaddish and Lillian? Does the conclusion provide a sense of closure, or does it refuse to do so?

Product Details

ISBN:
9780375404931
Author:
Englander, Nathan
Publisher:
Knopf
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
History
Subject:
Jews
Subject:
Missing children
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st
Publication Date:
April 24, 2007
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
352
Dimensions:
9.48x6.62x1.27 in. 1.40 lbs.

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The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 352 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780375404931 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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.)
"Review A Day" by , "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?" (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "Through deft, understated prose, Englander evokes the incremental way in which fear grips a community."
"Review" by , "This chilling book of intrigue examines the slow obliteration of culture and families perpetuated by forces seeking absolute political power. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Synopsis" by , 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.
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