Reading guide for The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

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The Ministry of Special Cases

A Novel

By Nathan Englander

The Ministry of Special Cases

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About This Book

Kaddish Poznan grew up as an hijo de puta among the Jewish pimps, whores, and gangsters of Buenos Aires who called themselves the Society of the Benevolent Self. His mother was a prostitute, his father unknown, and to make a living he chisels the names off tombstones in the cemetery of the Benevolent Self for respectable Jews who no longer wish to be associated with their unsavory forebears. Although Kaddish likes to have his son, Pato, work with him, Pato wants nothing to do with his father’s business. As a university student, his studies have alienated him from his uneducated, ne’er-do-well father.

The story takes place in 1976 at the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War, when General Jorge Videla’s military junta takes control of the country and young people suspected of leftist views begin to disappear. Kaddish burns some of Pato’s books—the books he thinks might get Pato into trouble—but misses a few. Pato is furious with his father’s intrusion, and in the midst of a violent argument between father and son, several policemen arrive and take Pato away. Pato’s disappearance throws Kaddish and Lillian, his wife, into a frenzy of grief and leads them into a waking nightmare as they make the rounds of police stations in their efforts to find out where their son is being held. Eventually they come up against the absurdist bureaucracy of the Ministry of Special Cases, the refuge of last resort. Here Kaddish and Lillian face all manner of human cruelty, corruption, and opportunism, and here they are each forced to come to terms with what they truly believe, and what they are capable of doing to get their son–or at least some shred of sanity–back again.

The Ministry of Special Cases is the story of a family living through Argentina’s darkest moment. 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 For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness and its hope.

Reader's 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, “You’re lazy. You’re a failure. You’ve 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 Kaddish’s only shortcoming, still it would have been enough” (p. 61). How complicated are Pato’s feelings for his father? Why does Kaddish so often make poor decisions?

  3. The Ministry of Special Cases is rooted in Argentina’s 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. Kaddish’s 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? We’re told that Kaddish had “never expected a happy life; only moments of joy to carry him through” (pp. 94–95). How does Kaddish’s background influence his approach to life?

  5. Kaddish’s 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 father’s 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 Pato’s 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 Lillian’s character, and how does she differ from Kaddish in her attempts to deal with Pato’s disappearance? Do you identify more with her continuing hope than with Kaddish’s 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 Lillian’s money, hope to achieve? How does Kaddish attempt to deal with the impossible demands being made by the priest and with Lillian’s desire to meet them?

  13. Discuss Englander’s decision, in Chapter 43, to introduce the character of the unnamed girl who finds Pato’s notes to his parents and dies without ever delivering these notes. “The memory is the girl’s alone, and that’s how it will stay. Still, in this horrible time when the junta would weave a nation’s 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 one’s 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 Kaddish’s name suit him? What resonance do the rabbi’s 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 son’s fate, while Lillian is wrong. How does this knowledge affect your reading of the last final chapters?

  17. Kaddish’s 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 Kaddish’s attempt to trick Lillian into accepting the bones of a stranger for her son’s?

  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. It’s not to make them no-more. It’s to make them, not-ever. It is to be undone. It’s 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 novel’s 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?

SUGGESTED READING
Shalom Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires,”
Martin Amis, House of Meetings;
Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture;
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated;
Nikolai Gogol, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories;
Franz Kafka, The Trial;
Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost;
I. B. Singer, The Manor and the Estate;
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons;
Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number;
Isabel Vincent, Bodies and Souls:
Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish.

Highly recommended: Constantine Costa-Gavras's film Missing.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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