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BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

May16

In the late 1970s, Argentina’s Videla ‘junta’ carried out a campaign of violence against its population, a “National Reorganization Process” comprised of the illegal arrest, torture, killing or forced disappearance of thousands of people, primarily trade-unionists, students and activists. Set during this turbulent time, Nathan Englander’s first novel focuses on a poor Jewish couple, Kaddish and Lillian Pozan whose only son, Pato, becomes one of the approximately 30,000 people who were lost during this time.

A novel about community, identity and injustice, The Ministry of Special Cases illuminates not only a dark period in Argentina’s history, but also that of its Jewish population. Embarrassed by their members who were pimps and prostitutes, the larger Jewish community refused to allow them to be buried in the community graveyard, requiring that they be separated by a wall and thus able to be ignored by “good people.” Decades later, their children want to protect their “good name” and they hire Kaddish, the invisible Jew, to remove their ancestors from public record. As The Ministry of Special Cases opens, Kaddish is found chiseling away at a gravestone in a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Ares.

The juxtaposition of the secret “Jewish Reorganization,” with the turbulent family dynamics of the Pozans, the self-policing of identity by the Argentinean population, and the broader political reorganization, makes for a complex novel about community, identity and injustice. Like the Jews who hire him, Kaddish now finds himself eliminating Pato’s history as a student and free-thinker, by destroying his books.

Kaddish, a man who carves his own path in life, is often in conflict with his wife and son who see him as someone who can never get anything right. Lillian is exasperated by his futile efforts to make a living and the need to constantly save him while his son refuses to accept him. It is only when his son becomes ‘disappeared’ that Kaddish finally fulfills his potential, becoming the man Lillian had seen glimpses of when they dated. The irony for Lillian is that in losing her future, she gains a full partner in their marriage.

ISBN10: 0375704442
ISBN13: 9780375704444

Trade Paperback
352 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
Author Website: nathanenglander.com

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