"The Ministry of Special Cases" By Nathan Englander, Knopf, Hardcover, 352 pages, $25
Nov 7, 2007, Vol: 14, No: 46
I’ll tell you, without metaphor or rumor or lie, there are terrible things happening. There are crimes the Western Hemisphere has not known. You must open your eyes and look up ... It isn’t angels you’ll see. Those are bodies falling from the sky.” Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s destroyed an entire nation, family by family. Nathan Englander emotionally, yet comically, illustrates this dark time during which innocent people were dragged out of their beds for possessing the wrong kind of book or merely being in a photograph with someone who does. As in most times of horror and despair, when there may be nothing else to help, one should always be able to fall back on the law to set things right. Therein lies the problem.
The ones who are breaking into homes, kidnapping its inhabitants, imprisoning and torturing them are government officials. As the list of The Disappeared grows, so do the government’s lies. Panic overcomes every parent lucky enough to still have a child to go home to. “To believe the bureaucracy functioned normally,” Englander writes, “was the same as believing the world was flat and that heaven started at its edge. There was no straight path. Bureaucracy in Argentina is round.”
Englander focuses on one family in particular, the Poznans. As the government obliterates 30,000 people one by one to cover up its dirty little secrets, Kaddish Poznan, hijo de puta, (son of a whore) erases his own secrets. He is hired by the children of alienated pimps and whores to chisel their names off gravestones, to bury their shameful heritage along with them. Lillian, who was too good for Kaddish but married him anyway, also makes her living off of fears and insecurities, selling insurance. Together, they raised Pato, a 19-year-old college student who smokes pot with his friends and laughs at how the government would collapse if the minority—he and all other Jews—revolted. He talks big about radical ideas but doesn’t have the courage to follow through with them.
Terrified of where these actions may lead, Kaddish and Lillian take drastic measures to keep the government out of their lives. As for their son, Lillian tries to impress upon him the danger they all face: “You’re at a dangerous age, Pato. You look like a man, you think like a man, but you still have the idealism of a child. Why do you suppose all those soldiers out there are also nineteen? It’s because they’re the only ones stupid enough to die for a cause ... Your hippy mottos are right, Pato. Don’t trust the grown-ups. Don’t trust any adult with a cause.”
Ricardo Emir Aiub, Laura L