Wednesday 7 October 2015

Book review: The Ministry of Special Cases

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf)

I’m a member of a book-swapping website, so when a book popped up that I’d never heard of and it turned out to be about “Dirty War”-era Argentina, I was intrigued and of course I ordered it right away – although not without a slight feeling of trepidation, because the book was by a non-Argentine, US writer Nathan Englander. Could a foreigner really capture the feeling of the time, I wondered?

The Ministry of Special Cases focuses on a dysfunctional, bleakly comic, urban Jewish family in 1970s Buenos Aires. Kaddish Poznan earns his living desecrating graves by night at the request of their family owners and struggles with his own disreputable inheritance, while his wife Lillian does her boss’s job as well as her own and, of course, the housework. When their son is abducted by the military regime, the couple is drawn into a nightmare of bureaucracy and fear as they struggle to get him back, or indeed hear anything of him at all.

It’s clear from that start – at least for anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Argentina – that Pato is going to be disappeared, but Englander prolongs the tension before the ultimate abduction. It’s almost painful to wait for the fateful moment, and truly painful to read on as the Poznans attempt, in their very different styles, to save him. I read with a pit in my stomach as Lillian joins interminable queues and scrapes together money for bribes, as Kaddish seeks to mine his circle of acquaintances for possible sources of news, and as the terrible series of events nearly tears the family apart.

Kafkaesque – too glib? Can we avoid the word? I don’t think we can, as the couple come up against prevarication, untruths and a flurry of meaningless paperwork down every corridor of the “Ministry of Special Cases”. The style is not strictly realistic but the story is grounded in hard research. In Lillian, who refuses to contemplate the idea that her son may be dead, we can see some of the founding ideas of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, plus there is a guest appearance by a pilot of the death flights (see Adolfo Scilingo). We might also recall that Jews were disproportionately represented among the disappeared, and that there was an anti-Semitic aspect to their torture. The plot spirals down and down the rabbit hole into the darkness. And yet the Poznans’ unfortunate experiences with plastic surgery add a streak of humour to the book.

My doubts about Englander’s ability to draw us in to a novel about Argentina were misplaced, and I was left comparing his work to that of Carlos Gamerro – both take carefully researched stories about the country’s recent history and add a heavy dose of fantasy, violence and black comedy. This novel can stand up against “The Islands” and give the English-speaking reader a great deal to chew on.