3 October 2009

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases, 2007

It must have been heartbreaking all over again for the Argentine mothers of the Disappeared to end their protests back in 2006. There are inevitably several non-fiction works available on this dark period of Argentina’s history but little in the form of fiction other than The Ministry of Special Cases. It must be among the best there is, in English at least, as the focus is on one family as it is torn apart by the casual cruelties of a paranoid government. Kaddish Poznan is a family man in 1976 Buenos Aires, an aimless outsider by day but, with the political climate as uncertain as it is, by night he has created for himself the unusual job of erasing the family names of his hijo de puta clients from their headstones in the city’s forgotten Jewish cemetery. There’s a military coup on the horizon and worse in the shape of the Dirty War, and when Poznan’s teenage son enters that catalogue of the Disappeared he can only appeal to the strange labyrinthine bureaucracy that is the Ministry of Special Cases for any semblance of justice.

This debut novel has a masterfully burlesque yet confident beginning, necessary to establish Poznan’s colourful family history and the range of experiences that brought Buenos Aires its arm of the Jewish diaspora, but this quickly settles down as Poznan’s small family is revealed to be a typically ordinary one. Unexpectedly, and despite the seriousness of the subject, Englander finds plenty of opportunity for black humour (mostly revolving around plastic surgery), but he also explores many serious themes via a cast of shadowy characters, the impenetrable web of government lies and the absolute need for hope in a hopeless situation. This is obviously a broader subject than just being purely a Jewish experience therefore in some way it’s fortunate that Englander doesn’t consider himself to be a ‘Jewish’ writer, but it’s all too easy to see how this novel was his labour of love, eight years in the writing, and it deserves to be considered a triumph. He pulls you around by the heartstrings with a drama that reads easily but is always engaging, and his main problem must have been how to end the story of an unending nightmare. He handles it rather well if perhaps, inevitably, a little inconclusively, but this still comes highly recommended.  PY


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