The Ministry of Special Cases

by Nathan Englander

Paperback, 2007

Call number




Alfred A. Knopf (2007), Edition: First Edition


Fiction. Literature. HTML:From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina�s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won�t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence�and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear. Nathan Englander�s first novel is a timeless story of fathers and sons. In a world turned upside down, where the past and the future, the nature of truth itself, all take shape according to a corrupt government�s whims, one man�one spectacularly hopeless man�fights to overcome his history and his name, and, if for only once in his life, to put things right. The Ministry of Special Cases, like Englander�s stories before it, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness, and�despite that�hope.… (more)

Media reviews

On its own, highly individual terms, however, the novel proves that Englander is well on the way to justifying the euphoria that his name evokes.
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Englander's contention is similar: in a corrupt and murderous system the scale of moral values shifts, and actions can no longer be judged on their proper terms. No one remains unscathed in a society that betrays its own laws and turns a blind eye to its murderers and torturers. Maybe for that
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reason we require, in time, the gaze of literature that, dismissing official versions and political assessments, forces us to look once again upon the suffering Zeus has sent us.
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Hoe nadrukkelijk ook een vertelling door een wikkende en wegende auteur, die zijn personages in zijn macht heeft en gretig strooit met relativerende humoristische frasen, grijpt deze roman je vanaf zijn eerste schitterende zin naar de keel.
Met zijn bijna provocerend-literaire aanpak en zijn
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vermogen om humor en drama op een zowel ongemakkelijke als onlosmakelijke wijze met elkaar te vervlechten, doet Englander denken aan Jonathan Safran Foer.
Beiden beschikken over het vermogen om hartverscheurend grappig te zijn. Dat duidt op een groot talent.
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Een dergelijke, nadrukkelijk literaire benadering kan tot een steriele roman leiden. Daarvan is in Het ministerie van Buitengewone Zaken echter geen sprake. Hoe nadrukkelijk ook een vertelling door een wikkende en wegende auteur, die zijn personages in zijn macht heeft en gretig strooit met
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relativerende humoristische frasen, grijpt deze roman je vanaf zijn eerste schitterende zin naar de keel. Met zijn bijna provocerend-literaire aanpak en zijn vermogen om humor en drama op een zowel ongemakkelijke als onlosmakelijke wijze met elkaar te vervlechten, doet Englander denken aan Jonathan Safran Foer. Beiden beschikken over het vermogen om hartverscheurend grappig te zijn. Dat duidt op een groot talent.
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Englander softens the jagged edges of history too much; the Dirty War becomes a stage set for explorations of identity. Beautifully written, “The Ministry of Special Cases” nonetheless presents a conundrum. Englander does in fiction what his absent God cannot: create a world. And then he
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peoples that world with characters that he treats better than history ever would.
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Nathan Englander may be the only writer on Amazon whose fans claim he was recommended by God (with the possible exceptions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Muhammad).

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Nathan Englander’s scathing indictment of the military dictatorship in place in Argentina in the mid-1970s is told through the tale of one family’s harrowing experience. Kaddish Poznan and his wife Lillian live a quiet life with their college-age son, Pato. Kaddish has a hard time providing for
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his family and he and Pato have a contentious father-son relationship. Lillian, in the meantime, is waiting for Kaddish to come home for the first time ever, having made things right. She’s lived with so much disappointment but now she knows that part of her life is done. That is, until the worst possible thing happens and tears their little family apart.

What an education this book provided about a period in history that I knew nothing about---Argentina’s Dirty Wars between 1976 and 1983, when the disappearance of young people occurred on a regular basis and torture and murder happen commonly, leaving family members the only one option: haunting the halls of the Ministry of Special Cases, searching for justice.

Englander’s prose sings and keeps the very dark narrative humming along. At the time of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, things were different in Argentina:

“A beggar sat in a doorway. In this neighborhood he looked twice as poor. Kaddish fished for change but had passed before he came up with something small. He walked on and spent the money on a “Clarin,” scanning the front page and shaking his head. Everything is coming apart around them and his newspaper runs a picture of an Uncle Sam up on stilts; the Yankees always happy to throw a party for themselves. The only thing Argentina will have to celebrate on its two hundredth anniversary is the miracle of turning back the clocks. The Stone Age would reach Buenos Aires before the future did, of this Kaddish was sure.” (Page 33)

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member lriley
Set during the years of the Argentine dirty war this novel follows the pereginations of Lillian and Kaddish Poznan desperately searching for their teenage son Pato (Pablo) who arrested after a night out at a concert is released into his fathers' care only to be re-arrested several hours later. As
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Jews they are all suspect but Pato as an university student and would be liberal intellectual is doubly suspect. Lillian and Kaddish--each in their own way go about trying to find him but are stonewalled by a government covering up its own atrocities against anyone it considers an enemy. Drawn from the real events of that time Englander does a fine job of keeping this his first novel from descending merely into pathos. The tragic certainly outweighs the comic but there are humorous aspects to his characterization especially of the hapless Kaddish. To go further all of his characterizations are very finely drawn and well thought out. Some scenes may verge on the absurd but there is always a reality underpinning everything. Beyond that this is extremely well concieved and written--one wonders if Englander who has astounded me with this will ever be able to surpass it. If he does watch out. I can't say that I was bored even once with this. This could be a great writer. Anyway I would very highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member michalsuz
Am writing this some months after reading the book: it is excellent.
Englander managed to write a story that is not his own, about a culture that is not his own and he is utterly persuasive and compelling.
One of the most striking features of the book is the way he manages to evoke absence.
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LibraryThing member LB121100
In Argentina, the government was known for taking children and then not admitting they ever existed. This is the story of a family whose son disappeared and the dynamics before and after the kidnapping. It goes very deep into the characters and it is very human. The book really affected me. I
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definitely recommend it.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Lillian and Kaddish Poznan live with their 19-year-old son Pato in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1970’s. Kaddish makes a living by rubbing out names on Jewish gravestones. He lives his life in a way to distance himself from his Jewishness. Both parents have a sense of fear and attempt to
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fortify their personal security when suddenly police come to their home to remove their son. In their search for their disappeared son, the parents find that most acquaintances fearfully withdraw any alliance they have to Pato. Both friends and the government beaurocracy combine to become one forceful labyrinth into which the parents delve differently in an effort to retrieve their son.

This book presents what seems at first a humorous look at a serious problem - that of the disappeared Jews in Argentina’s "dirty war". As the story progresses, the reader leans that the situation is not quite as funny as it first seems. Although I know some reviewers disapprove of the light-hearted approach with which this book was written, I think that the black humor only makes this book more readable. I love the funny characters who reinforce a sense of poignancy in their desperate attempt to limit their vulnerability in an especially precarious time for Jews in Argentina’s history. Englander’s taut construction of the story, thoughtful approach to a heart-breaking situation, and outrageous material makes me think of him as a Jewish John Irving!
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
This is a multi-faceted tale. part journalistic tale of the dissappearances in Buenos Aires in the 1970's, part sarcastic tale of the jewish diaspora and the failed marriage of Kaddish ,,un hijo de puta and Lillian his more middle class jewish wife who decided to marry for dreams rather than
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practicalities and ended up with the great dissappointment of reality.

Englander is a fine writer who can juggle many balls at once, combining a Kafkaesque tale of the bureaucratic nightmares a militiary dictatorship befalls on its citizens, how the ruling class and generals laud hightail over the proletariat ,and the middle class managers and priesthood who stand by in silent collaboration. This is told alongside the more intimate picture of a failed marriage and the painful relationship Kaddish has with his intellectual son Pato. Throw in a tongue in cheek picture of the jews of Argentina and one has a fascinating and different story, well told and fast moving.
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LibraryThing member cerievans1
The Ministry of Special Cases is quite possibly one of the most depressing books I have ever read, i'm definitely glad that experience is over. Family of three in Buenos Aires (Lillian, Kaddish and Pato), young man goes missing. Rest of the book comprises the parents futile and ever more desperate
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attempts to get him back. The book has value in that it is clearly a vivid portrait of a terrible time in Argentine history. Very sad.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
The Ministry of Special Cases is an amazing and heart-breaking tale set during the Argentinean Dirty War of the mid 1970’s. Kaddish Poznan is an outcast Jew. A ner-do-well who makes a bit of money by chiseling the names off of tombstones by Jewish residents of Argentina who are desperate to hide
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their Jewish origins. Kaddish is married to the beautiful, intelligent and proud Lillian, who takes care of her little family and provides the stability that Kaddish is unable to.

The horror of the Dirty War comes home when Kaddish and Lillian’s college age son Pato is taken by the Junta and ‘disappeared’. The full horror of what it means to be disappeared by one’s own government slowly unfolds as Kaddish and Lillian desperately search for their son. At every turn the government denies that Pato was ever taken. Finally Kaddish uncovers the full horror that the Argentinean Junta visits upon its own people, in particular the youth of the country and just what it means when a citizen is erased from existence.

The Ministry of Special Cases is both horrifying and moving as it tries to explain what happened to thousands of these ‘disappeared’ Argentineans. And even more horrifying is how an entire country can ignore its own government as it cannibalizes it’s own future.
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
A profoundly depressing and harrowing story set in 1970s Argentina where people are disappearing, never to be seen again, and the authorities are denying that anything is wrong. The novel follows Jewish couple Kaddish and Lillian as they search for their nineteen year old son, and as the months go
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by the desperation sets in. It is a stifling experience, page after page in their company as they head up blind alleys and come up against bureaucracy time and time again, but in terms of involving the reader in their desperate struggle it does its job.

Sad though the story is, there is a curious levity to the earlier sections. Just as hysteria can lurk at the edge of shock or sadness, a bizarre series of events sees Kaddish accept a nose job in payment for a spot of grave desecration. Possibly the worst literary deal since Jack swopped his cow for a handful of magic beans, and nothing if not original.

Not a book I would say I ‘enjoyed’, but it’s well written and I feel far better informed about a series of historical events about which I previously knew next to nothing.
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LibraryThing member BPetronio
The Generals still haven't paid for their crimes. Perhaps books like this one will spur justice (though likely it will come too late, as in the case of Chile's Pinochet).
LibraryThing member BeachWriter
Americans are familiar with the legend of Juan Peron's glamorous first wife, Eva (aka Evita). Less well known in the largely parochial U.S. is the "dirty war" that began under Peron's second wife and successor as president of Argentina, Isabel (Isabelita). In Englander's well crafted novel, a
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classic generational conflict between father and son abruptly ends when the son is arrested by state police and vanishes from all official records. As his parents -- at first together, then estranged from one another -- attempt to locate the missing boy, we are led through a Kafkaesque nightmarish world of bureaucrats, high level hustlers, self-righteous religious leaders and, finally, official murders.
This is a satisfying but chilling read with echoes of our own world: When Lillian, the mother of the missing child, tells a government bureaucrat, "Every last one of you will end up in hell for this," the man replies, "This country is at war. There are things that are done to ensure victory. Right things. When the country is safe, the victors will choose their own fates. And I don't think, as compensation, we will choose for ourselves hell. We'll choose better for ourselves. Something nice."
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LibraryThing member ElizabethPisani
I loved this book, set in the Peron years in Argentina. It speaks beautifully of the way small people soldier on in the face of incomprehensible events, and is eloquent, too, on the nature of hope and disappointment. I would recommend the British Faber edition for the beautiful jacket design,
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including a wonderful woodcut "author photo"
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
A beautifully sad novel about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires during The Dirty War. I can't say enough about the lovely prose that almost sings in a kind of lilting Yiddish/Spanish that makes the heartbreaking sadness of the thing almost bearable. But it still does crush you. Prepare to want to
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(and have to) savor it. It's not a one-sitting read.
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LibraryThing member fist
Is this Englander's Holocaust novel? Sometimes a subject has been covered so often that one needs a filter to look at it afresh. The rise of the military regime in Argentina could be that filter, as a middle-aged Jewish couple in Buenos Aires try to hold their ground amidst the elimination of civil
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rights and the arbitrary cruelty of those in charge. As the angst in this novel was increasingly getting to me, I did wonder whether the author had found a new way to convey the impact of the "Nacht und Nebel" tactics of the Nazis. This is not standard Englander, and is not a masterpiece, as the book clearly has some flaws (the first 100 pages were a bit tough to get through). But the atmosphere and the female character will stay with me for a long time.
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LibraryThing member judithann
The book is written rather densely at the beginning, sometimes hard to understand, but ligthens after a while, and becomes quite easy to read.

I had no particular interest in the topic and feel I have learned very little more about it. The difference between the father (he thinks the disappeared
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son is dead) and mother (she thinks he's alive) is interesting, but there is no real ending to the book.

Slightly disappointing, but still an interesting read.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Not a happy story but based on what I have read, it is an accurate description of the time. I read this book because I read an interview that Englander did with Colum McCann(Let the Great World Spin). Didn't know it would be about Buenos Aires and wouldn't you know it, I am going to Buenos Aires at
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the end of the week for 6 months. It will help me as I spend time getting to understand the culture of Argentina. An important book for people to read.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I had high expectations for this book since I loved Englander's collection of short stories, but I'm afraid I have mixed feelings about it in the end. The story itself was wonderful and fascinating, but in the end, it ran a bit long. There were many moments when I felt like the author should have
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taken more careful time with editing or getting to the point, and truthfully this might have been a stronger book if it were something like two thirds its length. At the same time, the plot/story carried the book and still made it an enjoyable read as it went--it just didn't move quite as quickly as I think it could/should have. Also, I would have liked a bit more to the characters; I found myself wanting to know more about each of the main characters to see them as truly real people, but I never quite got enough. In the end, if you liked his short stories, or novels that will force you to think and/or consider at length the implications of what you're reading, I'd suggest this novel. Looking back, I think I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already read the short stories and expected so much....
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LibraryThing member cmwilson101
Gorgeous, sad, touching story about a family living in Argentina during the time of "the disappearances". Beautifully written & engrossing.
LibraryThing member lonepalm
Worth the Wait: For those of us who have been waiting for Englander's next book , "The Ministry of Special Cases" was certainly worth the wait. While set in Argentina during the Dirty War, the mind-numbing-struggle this family faces against a totalitarian regime that refuses to acknowledge its
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sins, is a universal one. The story is deeply tragic and yet somehow Englander laces it all with his special brand of humor. We laugh and cry with the characters because Englander makes them breathe for us. We watch them live the full spectrum of human experience and sometimes life hurts but still the author helps us find reasons to laugh along the way.
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