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The Ministry of Special Cases Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 24, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Allegra GoodmanYoung writers are often told to write about what they know. In his 1999 collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander spun the material of his orthodox Jewish background into marvelous fiction. But the real trick to writing about what you know is to make sure you know more as you mature. Englander's first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, conjures a world far removed from "The Gilgul of Second Avenue." The novel is set in 1976 in Buenos Aires during Argentina's "dirty war." Kaddish Poznan, hijo de puta, son of a whore, earns a meager living defacing gravestones of Jewish whores and pimps whose more respectable children want to erase their immigrant parents' names and forget their shameful activities. Kaddish labors in the Jewish cemetery at night. His hardworking wife, Lillian, toils in an insurance agency by day, and their idealistic son, Pato, attends college, goes to concerts and smokes pot with his friends. When Pato is taken from home, Kaddish learns what it really means to erase identity, because no one in authority will admit Pato has been arrested. No one will even acknowledge that Pato existed. As Lillian and Kaddish attempt to penetrate the Ministry of Special Cases, Englander's novel takes on an epic quality in which Jewish parents descend into the underworld and journey through circles of hell. 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. At times Englander's motifs seem forced. Kaddish, whose very name evokes the memory of the dead, chisels out the name of a plastic surgeon's disreputable father, and in lieu of cash receives nose jobs for himself and his wife. Lillian's nose job is at first unsuccessful, and her nose slides off her face. One form of defacement pays for another. Kaddish fights with his son in the cemetery and accidentally slices off the tip of Pato's finger. Attempting to erase a letter, Kaddish blights a digit. But the fight seems staged, Pato's presence unwarranted except for Englander's schema. Other scenes are haunting: Lillian confronting bureaucrats; Kaddish appealing to a rabbi to learn if it is possible for a Jew to have a funeral without a body; Kaddish picking an embarrassing embroidered name off the velvet curtain in front of the ark in the synagogue. When he picks off the gold thread, the name stands out even more prominently because the velvet underneath the embroidery is unfaded, darker than the rest of the fabric. 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. (May)Allegra Goodman is the author of five books, including Intuition.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Eight years ago Nathan Englander published his acclaimed short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. He brings the same historical profundity to his first novel. While focusing on the pessimistic Kaddish, whose name honors the dead, and his optimistic wife, Englander tells a much larger story about terrorist regimes and asks universal questions about remembering the dead, dealing with evil, and addressing assimilation, love, ritual, and generational gaps. Most reviewers praised the novel's tense, Kafkaesque qualities; others criticized the obvious symbolism (the Poznans' bartered rhinoplasties, for example) and wished for more emotional empathy. Overall, however, Englander once again displays his ample talents in this much anticipated novel.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
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vocabulary is too poor to do him justice
He writes about tragic, bleak, sad events, with black humour,
but always with feelings and sentiments.
He is just extraordinary and I do recommend him to one
and all, a must
He is sure receive the Nobel prize
What made this book fantastic:
- Englander writes beautifully; he captures fear, hope, anger and heartbreak in each and every character
- This is not a political book; the politics at the forefront of the Dirty War serve to bring years of family, cultural and identity issues to the surface, forcing the Poznan's to deal with the strengths and weaknesses of the bonds that hold their family together
- On the other hand, when politics is mentioned it is done in such a way as to make you curious to learn more (I found myself doing extra research to gain a better understanding of what was happening in Buenos Aires during this time)
- The plot and characters are realistic; it's not a fairy tale
If you're being nit-picky you may have issues with:
- The fact that everything isn't neatly tied up with a pretty red bow at the end; Englander is being brutally honest about this time period
- You may be slightly confused about the role of the Jewish community in Argentina (again, doing a quick internet search will help)
- Feeling frustrated for information or progress in regards to the plot. This frustration is what you're supposed to be feeling, though. Take your frustration, multiply it by a thousand and you'll only begin understanding what Kaddish and Lillian are feeling about not easily finding their missing son.
This is a really wonderful novel that will make you appreciate so many things about your life and your family.
Most recent customer reviews
the first half is slow moving but it picks up...Read more