THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES
By Nathan Englander
Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pages, $25
In one of the most arresting stories in Nathan Englander’s first book, a collection called For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), Charles Morton Luger discovers one afternoon in a taxi cab on Park Avenue that he is the bearer of a Jewish soul.
“A New York story of the first order,” Mr. Englander writes, “like a woman giving birth in an elevator or a hot-dog vendor performing open-heart surgery with a pocketknife and Bic pen.”
In The Ministry of Special Cases, gone is the familiar contemporary cityscape and its inhabitants, though some of the characters introduced in Mr. Englander’s debut—the despondent Jewish acrobats whose farcical act keeps them alive; the revolutionary writers sentenced to death; the pious husband whose wife’s sexual rejection leads him astray—seem to have morphed into the family at the heart of the novel.
Set in Buenos Aires in 1976, at the outset of Argentina’s Dirty War, The Ministry of Special Cases is the story of Kaddish Poznan, the ambitious but cursed son of a prostitute; his loving wife, Lillian; and Pato, their headstrong son, a university student who reads banned books and whispers of conspiracy theories with his wayward friends.
To make a living, Lillian and Kaddish are forced to confront their own mortality on a daily basis. Outcast Kaddish is paid to chisel away from tombstones the names of prominent Jewish families’ embarrassing relatives (“I’ll tell you what this job is. It is work that needs to be done in a world that runs on shame,” he says), while Lillian works in a life-insurance sales office (“The only thing fire insurance has ever extinguished is a nagging doubt. The house goes up in flames just the same”), serving fattened generals and the like. Money is tight, but in the Poznan family, they love one another and fight one another with gusto. Their means may be meager, but their lives are not.At first, the regime’s oppression is only a distant menace, something Lillian believes a sturdy new door for their rented apartment will secure them from. But when Pato is suddenly arrested by the government, Lillian and Kaddish must descend into the quagmires of senseless bureaucracy—the Ministry of Special Cases—to appeal for their son’s release.
“I work hard!” one ministry official shouts impotently when Lillian and Kaddish come to him. “I’ve earned citations for hardness, for temerity!”
However, the real prize for temerity—if such prizes were awarded—would belong to Kaddish and Lillian, who, in their desperate attempts to find their son, are forced to plumb the depths of their marriage and their community; they are pushed to the edge of their sanity.
Grave-robbing, book-burning in the bathtub and multiple nose jobs (one of them botched) are just a few of the strange adventures of the Poznan family in this beautifully paced and engaging novel.
Nathan Englander bravely wrangles the themes of political liberty and personal loss with the swift style and knowing humor of folklore. In the spirit of the simple ambiguity of its title, The Ministry of Special Cases is carefully contradictory, wise and off-kilter, funny and sad.
Mythili Rao is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly. She lives in New York.