§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

I have been interested in “the disappeared” (Los Desaparecidos ) of Argentina since I visited that country in the mid-90ies several times and saw the mothers marching in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada (pink house, president’s residence and seat of government). That’s what drew me to this book.

The setting is Buenos Aires in 1976. The main characters are Kaddish Poznan and his wife, Lillian. They are not only Jewish, but Kaddish is literally a hijo de puta (son of a whore) and his “job” is defacing gravestones in the Jewish cemetery for whores and pimps for their descendents who want to erase their past, free their identity from the stain of their ancestors. And erasing the past and transforming identity are major themes in the novel. Lillian is a more conventional Jew, belonging to the “respectable” Jewish congregation. She works for an insurance agent, actually the main support of the family. Kaddish and Lillian have a son, Pato, who’s a university student. Kaddish and Pato battle constantly. On the day that Pato is arrested, Kaddish in his fury tells his son he wishes he’d never been born.

Kaddish and Lillian are both devastated at the arrest of their son, especially as they realize no official of the government will admit that Pato is even in custody or in fact ever existed. They handle their grief and frustration so entirely differently that the conflict between them deepens. Lillian assumes there are government channels one has to go through to get information. She soon knows every police station in the city intimately and sits every day at the Ministry of Special Cases hoping for a hearing. Kaddish’s strategy is less straightforward. In one of the more hilarious (in a book that’s basically painfully tragic) incidents of the book, before his son disappears, Kaddish is owed money by a plastic surgeon whose family graves he has “disappeared”. The doctor convinces him to accept payment in kind and Kaddish negotiates nose jobs for himself, Lillian and Pato. Pato refuses—not wanting to change his identity. Kaddish volunteers to go first and gets a first rate job; Lillian, whom he was trying to protect by going first, gets an intern and her new nose falls off and has to be redone—which Kaddish manages to badger the doctor into doing. Changing the nose, especially for a Jew, is tantamount to changing identity; Lillian, who is now beautiful, is devastated when a policeman to whom she shows a picture of her son, says it can’t be her son with that big nose.

A Kaddish is a prayer in the Jewish liturgy and the term is especially associated with a prayer of mourning. Both the history of Argentina of this period and Kaddish’s name warn the reader that Pato will never be found alive. Students and intellectuals were targeted by the regime and most often “disappeared”. Kaddish eventually encounters a navigator who, full of guilt in his role, tells him how the regime disposes of the disappeared, pushing them out of airplanes into the river delta. That convinces Kaddish that Pato is dead, but when he goes to the rabbi to arrange a funeral, it seems that Jewish practice doesn’t allow that without a body. Lillian throws him out because he won’t keep the faith that Pato is alive and coming back. She has met a priest roaming the Ministry of Special Cases who tells her that a great amount of money can buy information about the disappeared and sometimes even a release. Pato, not believing in her solution but realizing he can’t live her lie and can’t live without her goes back to the plastic surgeon who advises him to kidnap someone himself and demand a ransome. That Kaddish’s conscience cannot tolerate but he can “ply his trade” and steal the bones of a prominent family from the famous Recoleta cemetery and hold those for ransome…

This novel was not entirely successful. The marriage of Jewish tradition and Argentinean history of the 1970ies just doesn’t work. The saga of a disappeared son is too painful to be contemplated, and Englander doesn’t succeed completely moving the reader from the literal events to the larger concepts he seems to be trying for. There is no ending to Pato’s story—the mothers still march in the Plaza de Mayo (which practice is not, by the way, featured in the novel)—as the reader knows neither he nor his body will be found and that tragedy trumps all the richness and the humor of Kaddish and Lillian’s story.


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