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The Ministry of Special Cases

by Nathan Englander

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,0893718,864 (3.71)146
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.
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» See also 146 mentions

English (35)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (37)
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
The story of Kaddish Poznan, a Jew living in Argentina during the Peron years, Mr. Englander's first novel follows his wonderful debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Uncertainty, dictatorship, and persecution are to be expected in such a setting, but the author chooses to focus further on the themes of class rivalry and government-sponsored kidnapping that none dare question or even acknowledge.

The Poznan family is, in typical Englander fashion, a complex of unshared obligation, interdependent rebellion, and guilty familial affection. Unlike previous Englander characters, the Poznans are not particularly observant. Another new theme for the author is the relentlessly useless bureaucracy of Peronista Argentina.


The Ministry of Special Cases is less focused than the short fiction that preceded it, but that's to be expected. It's not as easy of a read as his previous work, nor is it as thoughtful. But these comparisons diminish the achievement of this debut novel, since they're more of a comment on For the Relief of Unbearable Urges than on this book. Mr. Englander has produced a worthwhile and thoughtful addition to the body of literature that includes the Jewish narrative. ( )
  neilneil | Dec 7, 2020 |
this isn't an easy, fun, quick, or traditionally enjoyable read, but wow i still really liked it. first of all - nathan englander can really write. i remember *loving* his book of short stories, for the relief of unbearable urges and looking forward to this one for a long time. that always makes me nervous, but right away i could tell that i was going to love his writing, and the intimate jewishness that he writes with, just assuming readers will know what he's talking about. (and, really, i don't know that unfamiliarity with jewish custom/law/ritual would make the book hard to understand or anything, but knowing it certainly adds to the experience of reading him.)

this takes place in a time period i'm ashamed to have known nothing about - the disappearing of people in argentina under the junta. it's about community acceptance (or ostracism), labels, loss. how two married people can approach/react to/recover from a traumatic situation so differently, and how this can lead to impossible distances between them. irrecoverable distances. it's a sad, terrible story, but told somehow with lightness and even some humor (those parts, to me, recall john irving, as he can make a reader surprised to laugh when reading about tragedy) and a touch of the tone of a fable (those parts, to me, recall gabriel garcia marquez).

his writing talent is extraordinary. i will read anything he writes.

"'To dream of one government ending doesn't mean you'll want the one that comes in its place.'"

"A flatbed truck with a tank on its back crawled across the next avenue. Another one followed behind. These trucks, moving through the city at a speed fit only for funeral processions, lumbering along. Where is the surprise at this speed? Trouble does not break out anywhere in the world, Lillian thought. War is not unleashed. It is slowly, it is carefully, installed."

"We make adjustments, Lillian thought. We ignore things bit by bit until they've gone too far." ( )
1 vote overlycriticalelisa | Feb 20, 2020 |
So good. Heartbreaking! ( )
  Katie80 | Oct 8, 2018 |
Review: The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. 09/09/2017

The book started out slow for the first seventy five pages and I wasn’t to sure what genre I was reading. The novel was well written, I enjoyed the characters but for quite a while I kept thinking, “What a strange story” but I couldn’t put it down. The more I read the more I wanted to read. I don’t know why I was so captivated but the pages kept turning. The only thing I didn’t like was the repetitive scenes. I think the story could have been shorter but yet I still enjoyed it and figured out the themes, yes more than one. What was really great about the novel is the author’s talent for combining horror and humor, tragedy and comedy, realism and fable.

The setting was in Argentina during the mid-1970’s war where a vast amount of citizens, including many students, disappeared by the authoritarian regime. The beginning scene was in a dark neglected cemetery in Buenos Aires with the main character, Kaddish Poznan, a shunned Jewish man who works in the cemetery. His job is chiseling off the names on grave stones whose children want to forget their parents past activities. Some days he takes his son Pato who is a rebellious teenager who will not accept his father’s work and think he is bad-mannered and crude. Kaddish’s wife Lillian works stressfully at a dishonest insurance company trying to provide for her family. Soon, their son is kidnapped like so many others and Kaddish and Lillian search for their son in a harsh society and through the Ministry of Special Cases, who are the government were not helpful or honest.

The story focuses on many different issues and events throughout the book. Kaddish accidentally chiseled the tip of one of Pato’s finger off and his parents get surgical nose jobs, Lillian challenges the administrative officials, Kaddish picks an embarrassing embroidered name off a curtain in the synagogue, citizens are still disappearing, and Kaddish continues spending his nights protecting the good name of a community that only denies his existence. Kaddish’s life turns upside down while he fights to overcome his history and name while trying to make things right. ( )
  Juan-banjo | Sep 15, 2017 |
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 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.
  lonepalm | Feb 5, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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.
 
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 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.
 
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 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.
added by sneuper | editde Volkskrant, Hans Bouman (Jun 29, 2007)
 
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 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.
added by sneuper | editde Volkskrant, Hans Bouman (Jun 29, 2007)
 
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 peoples that world with characters that he treats better than history ever would.
 

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Englander, NathanAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hoekmeijer, NicoletteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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WOMAN Come, let me go at once and incense burn In thanks to Heav'n for my child's safe return.
The Doctor and the Gravedigger, they are partners. - Yiddish Proverb
Dedication
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Jews bury themselves the way they live, crowded together, encroaching on one another's space.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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.

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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 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.
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