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Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
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0

A-The Ministry of Special CasesArgentina’s state-sanctioned Dirty War of the mid-1970s and early 1980s left the country in social and political turmoil as left-wing subversives and ethnic minorities—in total, possibly some 30,000 Argentines—disappeared. Amid this totalitarian regime, Kaddish Poznan, a Jewish denizen of Buenos Aires and the son of a whore, erases Jewish names from gravestones to sever the departed’s family from its history. Then Kaddish’s college-age son, Pato, becomes a desaparecido. As Kaddish and his wife Lillian attempt to locate him through the nightmarish, bureaucratic Ministry of Special Cases, they try to comprehend what erasure really means to a family—and to a nation.
Knopf. 339 pages. $25. ISBN: 0375404937

Hartford Courant 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Through a deep understanding of familial love and loss, and through the animated and consistent cadences of each wonderful character’s voice, he makes us laugh, between gasps, at the absurdity of the Poznans’ situation and hope for their successful reunion, despite improbable odds. … Written in crisp, unsentimental prose, The Ministry of Special Cases is as heartbreaking a novel as Sophie’s Choice." Jenny Minton

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Ministry of Special Cases—which may have its roots in Englander’s stay in Buenos Aires in 1990—is a mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory, spun out with a fabulism that recalls Isaac Bashevis Singer and only serves to heighten the absurdity and horror of the Dirty War. … [It] builds with breathtaking, perfectly wrought pacing and calm, terrifying logic." Mark Rozzo

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"While the tale is of a Jewish family, Englander’s is much more than a Jewish novel. … His depiction of a citizenry terrified of its own government, unsure what words will get them help or push them into danger, is one that alludes to nations around the world throughout the past 100 years." Lisa Bornstein

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In Englander’s wrenching political-historical fable, the Poznans’ story transcends the local; they represent the fate of a Jewish family under the pressure of totalitarianism, facing erasure. … The surreal aspect of their journey … enables Englander to enlarge the story into a moving parable about the meaning of Jewish identity, the struggle of a marginal people to stay afloat." Donald Weber

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"There are some truly chilling moments in this book—an encounter with a general who has adopted a stolen child as his own; the confession of a pilot who has assisted in ‘disappearing’ people by throwing them from a plane into the ocean—but Englander is less concerned with the visceral effects of historical atrocity than he is with intellectual ones." Ethan Rutherford

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Along with the protagonist’s first name, there are other instances of symbolism that come across as heavy-handed. … The Ministry of Special Cases is a moving, thoughtful, even humorous and carefully crafted first novel." Dorman T. Shindler

Philadelphia Inquirer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It takes daring to make Kaddish, Lillian and Pato as deeply flawed as they are. But by dipping in and out of making them characters or constructs, and not deciding one way or the other, The Ministry of Special Cases misses out on being a definitive read." Sarah Weinman

Critical Summary

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.

Also by the Author

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges Stories (1999): Award Star PEN/Malamud Award. Drawing on his family’s heritage, Englander uncovers 20th-century Jewry at a crossroads: an orthodox Jew seeks a prostitute; a Park Avenue man finds Judaism; an Orthodox man plays Santa Claus in a department store; a writer finds his voice in Stalinist Russia; and an American Jew witnesses terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.