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The Ministry of Special Cases

Cover of The Ministry of Special Cases

The Ministry of Special Cases

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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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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    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 cracked, the letters wearing away. Most of the others were cut from granite. If nature and pollution didn't get to those, the local hooligans would. In the past, Kaddish had scrubbed away swastikas and cemented back broken stones. He tested the strength of the one over Two-Blades' grave. "Like taking a swing at a loose tooth," Kaddish said. "I don't even know why we bother--a little longer and no sign of this place will remain."

    But Kaddish and Pato both knew why they bothered. They understood very well why the families turned to them with such urgency now. It was 1976 in Argentina. They lived with uncertainty and looming chaos. In Buenos Aires they'd long suffered kidnap and ransom. There was terror from all quarters and murder on the rise. There was also then a growing sense of danger. It was no time to stand out, not for Gentile or Jew. And the Jews, almost to a person, felt that being Jewish was already plenty different enough.

    Kaddish's clients were the ones who had what to lose, the respectable, successful segment of their community that didn't have in its families such a reputable past. In quieter times it had been enough to ignore and deny. When the last of the generation of the Benevolent Self had gone silent, when all the plots on their side were full, the descendants waited what they thought was a decent amount of time for an indecent bunch and sealed up that graveyard for good.



    When he went to visit his mother's grave and found the gate locked, Kaddish turned to the other children of the Benevolent Self for the key. They denied involvement. They were surprised to learn of the cemetery's existence. And when Kaddish pointed out that their parents were buried there, they proved equally unable to recall their own parents' names.

    Harsh a stance as this was, it was born of a terrible shame.

    Not only was the Society of the Benevolent Self a scandal in Buenos Aires, at its height in the 1920s it was a disgrace beyond measure for every Argentine Jew. Which of their detractors didn't enjoy in his morning paper a good picture of an alfonse in handcuffs, a Caftan member in a lineup--who didn't feel his reviling justified at the sight of the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires accompanied by their pouty-lipped Jewish whores? But this was long over in 1950, when Kaddish found himself locked outside the gate. That terrible industry as a Jewish business was by then twenty years shut down. The buildings that belonged to the Society of the Benevolent Self were long sold off, the pimps' shul abandoned. There was only one holding that couldn't possibly fall into disuse. Disrepair, yes. And derelict, too. But, like a riddle, what's the only thing...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Arthur Morey transports listeners to Buenos Aires, 1976, during Argentina's "dirty war." Morey hits just the right sardonic note as protagonist Kaddish Poznan, "hijo de puta" (son of a whore), who nightly rewrites history by removing the names of Jewish whores and pimps from gravestones for their respectable children who are embarrassed by their parents' jaded pasts. As Kaddish, Morey is thoughtful, philosophical: "I offer a face-lift for the family name." With wife Lillian and son Pato, Kaddish lives in a world in which Gogol meets Kafka. Morey is especially strong when Pato is taken away in a government-green Ford Falcon and his parents are forced to approach the Ministry of Special Cases for assistance. The novel is a chilling reminder of the way a nation can disappear into totalitarian oblivion. S.J.H. (c) AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "The fate of Argentina's Jews during the 1976-83 "Dirty War" is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this stark first novel. . . . Englander's story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations."

  • Booklist (starred review) "This is a staggeringly mature work, gracefully and knowledgeably set in a milieu far from the author's native New York. . . . Four p's best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal."
  • Bookforum "[A] harrowing and brilliant first novel . . . Englander's great gifts are an absurdist sense of humor and a brisk, almost breezy narrative voice. He handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artist, before delivering the final, devastating blow."
  • Harper's Magazine "Resonates of Singer, yes, but also of Bernard Malamud and Lewis Carroll, plus the Kafka who wrote The Trial . . . You will wonder how a novel about parents looking for and failing to find their lost son, about a machinery of state determined to abolish not only the future but also the past, can be horrifying and funny at the same time. Somehow . . . this one is."
  • Los Angeles Times "A mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory. . . . It's a family drama layered with agonized and often comical filial connections that are stretched to the snapping point by terrible circumstance . . . builds with breathtaking, perfectly wrought pacing and calm, terrifying logic."
  • Publishers Weekly "Englander writes with increasing power and authority . . . Gogol, I. B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander's book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration."
  • Library Journal "This chilling book of intrigue examines the slow obliteration of culture and families perpetuated by forces seeking absolute political power. Highly recommended."
  • Details "Englander secures his status as a powerful storyteller with this book about the disappearance of the son of a down-and-out Jewish hustler during Argentina's Dirty War in the seventies."
  • Esquire "Englander's prose moves along with a tempered ferocity -- simple yet deceptively incisive. . . . Englander's book isn't so much about the search for a lost boy. It's about fathers and sons and mothers and faith and community and war and hope and shame. Yes, that's a lot to pack into 339 pages. But not when a book reads at times with the urgency of a thriller."
  • Newsweek "Wonderful . . . Since much of the book's power comes from its relentlessly unfolding plot, it's not fair even to tell who disappears, let alone whether that person reappears. . . . Englander maintains an undertone of quirky comedy almost to the end of his story."
  • People "[Englander's] journey into the black hole of paradox would have done Kafka or Orwell proud."
  • Time Out New York "Brace yourself for heartbreak . . . most of the story is so convincingly told that it's hard to imagine that Englander hasn't weathered political persecution himself."
  • The Hartford Courant "A vibrant, exquisite, quirky and devastating historical novel--and a gift to readers. . . . This is a story propelled by secrets, and part of Englander's achievement is how well he builds nerve-wrecking tension. . . . Written in crisp, unsentimental prose, The Ministry of Special Cases is as heartbreaking a novel as Sophie's Choice."
  • The Miami Herald "[S]pare, pitch-perfect passages . . . Through deft, understated prose, Englander evokes the incremental way in which fear grips a community, citizens accustom themselves to ignoring those small outrages and how those outrages gradually but inexorably give way to larger atrocities, tolerated by an ever more complicit populace."
  • The Boston Phoenix "The combination of a gift for narrative, a proclivity for pathos, and a lode of arcane knowledge is put to great use in Nathan Englander's first novel."
  • New York Observer "Nathan Englander bravely wrangles the themes of political liberty and personal loss with the swift style and knowing humor of folklore. In the spirit of the simple ambiguity of its title, The Ministry of Special Cases is carefully contradictory, wise and off-kilter, funny and sad."
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