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The Ministry of Special Cases (Vintage International) Paperback – April 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage International
  • Paperback: 339 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375704442
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704444
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,133 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gregory Baird VINE VOICE on August 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Set in the Argentina of 1976 - a dark and violent time of upheaval - "The Ministry of Special Cases" is about a family torn apart by a power-corrupted government. It centers primarily on the actions of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan after their teenaged son, Pato, is `disappeared' by mysterious officials one night, perhaps never to be seen again. Kaddish and Lillian are locked in a futile race against time, knowing that every day their son is missing the likelihood that he has not survived increases. But how can they penetrate the defenses of the government and the police to get information regarding a son whose existence is now denied? At best, Kaddish and Lillian are told that their son must have run away from them, and are advised to give up their search before making `needless' trouble. But the Poznans know the truth about Pato's disappearance - Kaddish was home when his son was escorted from their apartment by mysterious men, who also removed three of Pato's books that they had deemed inappropriate.

The search for their son leads Lillian to Argentina's Ministry of Special cases, where hundreds of people line up and fight for information about missing loved ones, and are frustrated by bureaucratic dead-ends. Worse than the government's unswerving apathy toward Kaddish and Lillian is the fearfully uncaring attitude that they find from general citizens they turn to for assistance. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own problems to care about the Poznan's plight - and much too afraid of losing their own family if they anger the government.
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Format: Hardcover
Seldom has a novel commanded so many of my emotions. My heart felt like a piano on whose strings a master musician was playing both polkas and dirges. But most of all, Mr. Englander kept surprising me. I usually read mysteries to enjoy fictional surprises, but The Ministry of Special Cases provided many more surprises than any mystery I've read in recent years.

When I began reading the book, I had to stop and start over. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It's almost as though Hamlet started with the grave digger's scene.

How can I summarize this book? I'm not sure I can do so accurately, but I'll hit some of the right notes of I call this book Don Quixote at The Trial. In the process, Mr. Englander unerringly portrays a society that's failing because each person only wants to look out for himself or herself.

You will find yourself in Argentina during the beginning of the "dirty war" when many young people disappeared. What would it like to be a parent of such a young person? That's what you will graphically experience by reading The Ministry of Special Cases.

Kaddish Poznan was conceived through an accident between his prostitute mother and a customer. The rabbi granted Kaddish such an unusual name in hopes it would protect him. As the book evolves, you'll see that the name has indeed shaped his character as well as his actions. Many of the "respectable" Jews in Argentina at the time had forbearers who also engaged in illicit and illegal activities, while sporting colorful names such as Hezzi Two-Blades.

Kaddish has been looking for the big score all of his life, but hasn't found it.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It's difficult to believe this is a first novel. Indeed, Englander has written two books here, blending themes and forms in a setting alien to his native Long Island: the Jewish community in Argentina during the mid-1970s "Dirty War," when thousands of citizens, including many students, were "disappeared" by the authoritarian regime of Jorge Rafael Videla.

One novel--the first half--is a family drama featuring Kaddish Poznan, who lives a blithely contented life as an outcast from Buenos Aires's "respectable" Jewish society and who hires himself out to upper-crust families who want to expunge the evidence of their less-than-reputable ancestors. Kaddish, a somewhat endearing buffoon always on the cusp of becoming rich (or so he thinks), lives with his long-suffering wife, Lillian, who provides her family with a more reliable source of income by working in an insurance office, and a son, Paco, a university student embarrassed by his father's uncouthness.

Englander has most often been compared to I. B. Singer, and with reason: Kaddish would feel right at home in a Polish shtetl or in an Upper West Side diner, and the familial strife is torn right from the pages of "The Family Moskat." Yet the conflict between father and son couldn't possibly lead more suddenly and seamlessly from what David Roskies has called the "demonic realism" of a Singer tale to the Kafkaesque terror in the second half of the book. Kaddish and Lillian are forced from the parochialism of their neighborhood into the claustrophobic hallways of a malicious bureaucracy and the dark-lit alleys of a frightened city. The familial nightmare rends Kaddish and Lillian, who had always lived in a fragile harmony and who choose separate paths to determine their son's fate.
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