In the time of Argentina's "Dirty War" Kaddish Pozman, a Jewish resident of Buenos Aires, works for hire as a midnight eraser of names from tombstones of Jews whose living families do not want any connection to their dear departed's past dubious behavior. But when Pozman's son is taken by the military, Pozman fights to overcome his history and his name to put things right.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."