Summary and book reviews of The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

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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Book Summary

In the heart of Argentina’s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won’t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence--and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear.

The long-awaited novel from Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Englander’s wondrous and much-heralded collection of stories won the 2000 Pen/Malamud Award and was translated into more than a dozen languages.

From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina’s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won’t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence--and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear. When the nightmare of the disappeared children brings the Poznan family to its knees, they are thrust into the unyielding corridors of the Ministry of Special Cases, the refuge of last resort.

Nathan Englander’s first novel is a timeless story of fathers and sons. 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 Englander’s stories before it, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness, and--despite that--hope.

Chapter One

Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another's space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe. Kaddish led Pato through uneven rows over uneven ground on the Benevolent Self side. He cupped his hand over the eye of the flashlight to smother the light. His fingers glowed orange, red in between, as he ran his fist along the face of a stone.

They were searching for Hezzi Two-Blades' grave, and finding it didn't take long. His plot rose up sharply. His marker tipped back. It looked to Kaddish as if the old man had tried to claw his way free. It also looked like Two-Blades' daughter had only to wait another winter and she wouldn't have needed to hire Kaddish Poznan at all.

Marble, Kaddish had discovered, is chiseled into not for its strength but for its softness. As with the rest of the marble in the graveyard of the Society of the Benevolent Self, Hezzi's marker was pocked and ...

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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’...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review (583 words).

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Media Reviews

Time Out New York -Kate Lowenstein
Englander’s novel has hints of magical realism (we find the characters in a variety of absurd situations, such as their willing receipt of unnecessary nose jobs from a broke surgeon who owes Kaddish money), but most of the story is so convincingly told that it’s hard to imagine that Englander hasn’t weathered political persecution himself. Despite its grim plot, the book is a pleasure to read. 4 out of 6.

Esquire - Tyler Cabot
All the while, Englander's prose moves along with a tempered ferocity -- simple yet deceptively incisive.

Publisher's Weekly
Signature review. 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.

Booklist - Brad Hooper
Starred Review. The bulk of this overwhelming novel, then, 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.

Kirkus Reviews
Englander's story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations.

Reader Reviews

Julie Zelman

Get it for your book club!
Like his earlier short story collection, this will draw you deep inside a world that is both new and familiar. I have recommended this book to many people, and each came away saying "Wow". It reminds me of "Life of Pi", not in its themes or ...   Read More

Kim

2007 Favorite Book for a reason!
The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander, tells the story of a Jewish family caught up in the political corruption and upheaval of mid-70's Argentina. As one of BookBrowse's Best Books of 2007, it has all the things you'd expect from high...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Argentina: The Jewish community and the "Dirty War"

Jews in Argentina
After being expelled from Spain in 1492, a number of Jews settled in Argentina where they assimilated into the general population, so by the mid 1800s there were few overt Jews in Argentina. When Argentina gained its independence from Spain in 1810, the first president officially abolished the Inquisition and encouraged freedom of immigration and respect for human rights. Over the following decades Jewish immigrants began to arrive from Europe, especially France. In the late 19th century, a third wave of Jewish immigrants arrived, primarily fleeing poverty and pogroms in Russian and Eastern Europe. By 1920 there were about 150,000 Jews in Argentina.

Anti-Semitism in Argentina had been infrequent until World War I, but ...

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