BookBrowse Reviews 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 by Nathan Englander X
The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 352 pages

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Englander's powerful and poignant novel probes the depths of identity and loss, and how societies and individuals contribute to their own undoing

Englander's relatively short but immensely powerful first novel is set in 1976 at the start of the Dirty War, a 7-year campaign by the Argentine military government against suspected subversives. Kaddish (named for the Jewish prayer of mourning) always has a new scheme for making money. He earns his latest erratic source of income by breaking into a walled off cemetery at dead of night in order to chisel the names of Jewish whores and pimps off their gravestones, so that their respectable second generation children can erase their own pasts. This is the same past that Kaddish, the son of an immigrant whore, proudly embraces, which makes him an effective untouchable to the Jewish community as a whole. Meanwhile, his wife, stoical and reliable Lillian, brings home a paycheck from the insurance agency where she's busily employed insuring the lives of the newly rich higher-ups in the military regime.

When their naively idealistic, but probably politically harmless son, Pato, is taken from their own home, the parents experience a defacement as efficient as Kaddish's chisel - Pato has simply ceased to exist.

The Ministry of Special Cases is a powerful and poignant novel that probes the depths of identity and loss, and how societies and individuals contribute to their own undoing. To tell you any more would be to tell you too much. Be cautious reading other reviews of The Ministry of Special Cases because many give away too much of the plot; and, however tempting it might be, don't skip ahead to see the outcome. Instead, step into the unknown alongside the comically-tragic Kaddish and his wife as they helplessly attempt to navigate the terrifying Kafkaesque world of 1970s Buenos Aires, in which their son has been "disappeared", his very existence, past or present, denied by the military regime.

Nathan Englander was brought up as an Orthodox Jew, educated at a yeshiva in suburban Long Island, and now lives in New York. His favorite reading are Russian novelists such as Gogol, Dostoevsky and Chekhov; also Kafka and Camus. It took him eight years to write The Ministry of Special Cases following the publication of his bestselling short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which he wrote while living in Israel.

When asked to what extent religion influences his writing he replies, "I don't think I could introduce myself to a stranger, or even see my oldest friend, and make it ten seconds without saying that I'm Jewish, or referencing it in some way. That's me. But I don't consider myself a Jewish writer, and I definitely do not look at [The Ministry of Special Cases] as Jewish .... it is the very least equally as much about being Argentine as it is about being Jewish – is anyone, anywhere, ever going to call me an Argentine writer?" Read more from this interview.

Interesting Link: Essay: Nathan Englander returns to Buenos Aires, the place he's been imagining for a decade.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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