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Imagine a country so paranoid that it empowers its police forces, its military, and its paramilitary forces with special powers to arrest, to detain, to torture and to eliminate its own citizens. It is, I'm sure, difficult to imagine, but in order to enjoy this novel you must try. Imagine further living in such a country, with the gnawing fear of arrest for no reason or execution with no trial. Got it?
Now imagine that suddenly your only son is arrested and taken away right under your eyes.
The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander is a first novel by the writer who made his literary debut with the award-winning collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Set in Buenos Aires in 1976, this historical novel depicts a family headed by an outcast who makes his living defacing Jewish gravestones in order to erase the past for his Jewish clients. Englander writes about the fate of those who disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s, about the fate of the Jews, and by extension the fate of humankind: waiting, waiting for the return of a loved one.
Englander's novel begins, "Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another's space. The headstones were packed tight, the bodies underneath elbow to elbow and head to toe. Kaddish led Pato through uneven rows over uneven ground on the Benevolent Self side. He cupped his hand over the eye of the flashlight to smother the light. His fingers glowed orange, red in between, as he ran his fist along the face of a stone.
At one anguishing moment in the story a character cries out, "What could that possibly mean?" and that strikes me as a general question to be asked of the series of events depicted in this fascinating novel. I choose "fascinating" with some care and use it to describe not only the events but also the tone or atmosphere of the work. The events are centered by a search – a search for a child who "has been disappeared" by a Kafka like regime which denies the existence of the disappearances. A Jewish mother and father react differently to the disappearance of son Pato, a bookish, bright, secretive, rebellious lad who is, like many of his friends, goofing off on his way through college classes with a joint in one hand and some banned book in the other. Suddenly he is taken from his home along with a couple of his suspicious books, by officials (or unofficial officials) late at night and right after father and son exchange "fuck yous" in a serious argument which concludes with father angrily shouting, "I wish you had never been born." [Be careful what you wish for.]
Frustrating, heart breaking events toss the parents from place to place as they seek some information about their son's whereabouts and condition. Fascinating in part because of the tone – a tone created by Englander's ability to present a story rich with a deep emotional width and depth stretching from the anguish of parents to the uniquely humorous joking and irony of the Yiddish language playfulness of the interactions between the strange array of characters. Priest, Rabbi, Doctor, General, Jewish Leader, all are mendacious and deceptive in their dealings with the Poznans.
The tone of the novel is somewhere between The Fixer and Murphy. The tone emerges from absurd situations in an absurd setting that come to be understood as normal. Lillian and Kaddish Poznan suffer triple misfortunes. First they are Jews in Argentina in the mid 1970s. Second Kaddish is the son of a whore shunned by the local congregation. In fact he may not even exist since by definition, as the Rabbi explains, "there are no Jewish whores." And now the couple's son, Pato, has been arrested. Together and separately they struggle to find meaning in his disappearance–and their country's dirty war–in their own ways, both understanding that the collective forgetting that accompanies los desaparecidos will leave a stain on the country and all in it: "'Everyone's losing senses these days,' Kaddish said. He was truly disappointed. 'When this is all over, it'll be hard to see these handicaps undone.'"
One theme developed in story and image is the idea of what we can know and how knowledge relates to belief. Officials lie but not consistently. Sometimes what they say is true or suggestive. Sometimes they are just brutal and filled with lies. Rumor and speculation is all that is available. The last resort for those who believe that a loved one has been "disappeared" is the Ministry of Special Cases, a Kafka like castle with guards, clerks, priests, files, folders, doors, floors and no answers. People who arrive there are arriving at the front end of a government bureaucracy that has no exit, "bureaucracy in Argentina goes round and round" one character announces.
The audio production has as reader, Arthur Morey, and he does an excellent job of reading. Never boring, always hitting just the right key, Morey presents all the characters with clarity and forcefulness. He does not try to reproduce different voices for different characters; instead he lets the text create those differences in the mind of the listener. This 2007 Random House production is well-paced and provides about ten hours of enjoyable listening.
Betrayal, lies, government bureaucracy gone crazy, double speak -- all of these are part of the novel's backbone which is then fleshed out with human love, commitment, laughter, frantic attempts to act, and tears.
Only in a fictional world? Not at all. While listening to Arthur Morey read The Ministry of Special Cases I was reminded of the non-fictional story of Maher Arrar, the Syrian born Canadian who was kidnapped by the US on his way home to Canada from a trip to Tunis. He was arrested and deported to Syria for interrogation and torture without a thought given to his rights or liberties as a Canadian citizen. Several agencies from Canada and the USA were involved including the RCMP, CSIS, and the CIA. Arrar's family in Canada, like the fictional family of Pato, waited and worried, wondered and anguished as they sought to find answers from the ministry of special cases.
© 2007 Bob Lane
Link: Publisher's web page for book
Bob Lane is a retired teacher of English and Philosophy who is currently a Research Associate in Philosophy at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, Canada. His Blog Perlocutionary can be found at http://www.boblane.org.