Kaddish Poznan is a failure, an utter, complete miserable failure. But he is also a determined failure, a proud failure, and above all else, a lovable failure. He has already suffered through years of failure, and is ready to suffer through years more; he is a tenacious failure.
He is, in fact, any and every kind of failure one could imagine. The only claim to success Kaddish Poznan may ever be able to make is that he is the protagonist of what may well be the best novel to be published so far in this young century.
“The Ministry of Special Cases” is Nathan Englander’s debut novel, the long-awaited follow up to his award story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.”
The saga of Kaddish’s many struggles as he fights to hold his family together in the depths of Argentina’s Dirty War “The Ministry of Special Cases” is anything but a let-down. In lyrical but biting prose, with characters so well-rounded they’re Rubenesqe, Englander unfolds a memorable,
poignant examination of the limits to love.
The Dirty War is the name given to the campaign of murder and oppression carried out by the (United States-supported) Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. It was, writes Englander, a “time of great uncertainty and deadly rumor.”
It is in this landscape of fear that Kaddish uncovers his last and greatest get-rich-quick scheme. Kaddish, the hijo de puta, the son of a whore rejected by the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, will save that community from its unseemly past. He will provide “face-lifts” for the now-great family names, sweeping their long-forgotten secrets under the rug. He will literally erase the past, chiseling the names of would-be-forgotten elders off of soon-to-be-forgotten tombstones. For once, it seems there is little that can go wrong with Kaddish’s plan; and little would have, if he wasn’t so intent on bringing his son Pato along on his literal graveyard shifts. All Kaddish seeks is his son’s love and approval.
“How much,” asks Englander, “can one man take after doing everything he could and doing it wrong in the eyes of his son?”
Struggling for his son’s respect is only the beginning. Soon Kaddish will need to struggle for his son’s life. After Pato’s abduction by a group of men who may or may not have been the police, “The Ministry of Special Cases” becomes a mad race for Pato’s life, and eventually a literary tug-of-war between the very forces of life and death.
The reader remains glued to the page as the book progresses with an inevitable rhythm toward a conclusion that is only as predictable as it is unexpected.Nathan Englander’s “The Ministry of Special Cases” is perhaps the most moving and articulate expression of fear and injustice to be written in decades – but it is so much more as well. It is a story about fathers and sons, about husbands and wives, about life and death, about remembering and letting go. It is by turns sad, moving, funny and countless other things. In the end and above all however, “The Ministry of Special Cases” is an eminently human, and eminently readable, novel.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.