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The Ministry of Special Cases Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 24 2007


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (April 24 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375404937
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375404931
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.8 x 3.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 612 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #769,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Allegra GoodmanYoung writers are often told to write about what they know. In his 1999 collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander spun the material of his orthodox Jewish background into marvelous fiction. But the real trick to writing about what you know is to make sure you know more as you mature. Englander's first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, conjures a world far removed from "The Gilgul of Second Avenue." The novel is set in 1976 in Buenos Aires during Argentina's "dirty war." Kaddish Poznan, hijo de puta, son of a whore, earns a meager living defacing gravestones of Jewish whores and pimps whose more respectable children want to erase their immigrant parents' names and forget their shameful activities. Kaddish labors in the Jewish cemetery at night. His hardworking wife, Lillian, toils in an insurance agency by day, and their idealistic son, Pato, attends college, goes to concerts and smokes pot with his friends. When Pato is taken from home, Kaddish learns what it really means to erase identity, because no one in authority will admit Pato has been arrested. No one will even acknowledge that Pato existed. As Lillian and Kaddish attempt to penetrate the Ministry of Special Cases, Englander's novel takes on an epic quality in which Jewish parents descend into the underworld and journey through circles of hell. Gogol, I.B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander's book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration. At times Englander's motifs seem forced. Kaddish, whose very name evokes the memory of the dead, chisels out the name of a plastic surgeon's disreputable father, and in lieu of cash receives nose jobs for himself and his wife. Lillian's nose job is at first unsuccessful, and her nose slides off her face. One form of defacement pays for another. Kaddish fights with his son in the cemetery and accidentally slices off the tip of Pato's finger. Attempting to erase a letter, Kaddish blights a digit. But the fight seems staged, Pato's presence unwarranted except for Englander's schema. Other scenes are haunting: Lillian confronting bureaucrats; Kaddish appealing to a rabbi to learn if it is possible for a Jew to have a funeral without a body; Kaddish picking an embarrassing embroidered name off the velvet curtain in front of the ark in the synagogue. When he picks off the gold thread, the name stands out even more prominently because the velvet underneath the embroidery is unfaded, darker than the rest of the fabric. Englander writes with increasing power and authority in the second half of his book; he probes deeper and deeper, looking at what absence means, reading the shadow letters on history's curtain. (May)Allegra Goodman is the author of five books, including Intuition.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The years between the 1999 appearance of Englander's highly applauded first work of fiction, the short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges , and the release of his first novel have apparently gone to good stead. This is a staggeringly mature work, gracefully and knowledgeably set in a milieu far from the author's native New York. The time is the mid-1970s, and the place is Argentina. The widow of Juan Peron (Isabella, that is, not his 1940s wife, Eva) has just been given the boot from the presidential office by the military, which has inaugurated an internal terrorist program that came to be known as the dirty war. Kaddish Pozman, a Jewish resident of Buenos Aires, works for hire as a midnight eraser of names from tombstones of Jews whose living families do not want any connection to their dear departed's past dubious behavior, now that an uncertain regime governs the land. Of course, one of the major characteristics of the military government is its widespread program of making people who just might be revolutionaries or insurrectionaries or even free thinkers disappear into the regime's system of detention centers, and Pozman's son becomes one such desaparecido . The bulk of this overwhelming novel, then, is Pozman's and his wife's attempt to locate their missing son. Four p' s best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on July 2 2007
Format: Hardcover
Seldom has a novel commanded so many of my emotions. My heart felt like a piano on whose strings a master musician was playing both polkas and dirges. But most of all, Mr. Englander kept surprising me. I usually read mysteries to enjoy fictional surprises, but The Ministry of Special Cases provided many more surprises than any mystery I've read in recent years.

When I began reading the book, I had to stop and start over. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It's almost as though Hamlet started with the grave digger's scene.

How can I summarize this book? I'm not sure I can do so accurately, but I'll hit some of the right notes of I call this book Don Quixote at The Trial. In the process, Mr. Englander unerringly portrays a society that's failing because each person only wants to look out for himself or herself.

You will find yourself in Argentina during the beginning of the "dirty war" when many young people disappeared. What would it like to be a parent of such a young person? That's what you will graphically experience by reading The Ministry of Special Cases.

Kaddish Poznan was conceived through an accident between his prostitute mother and a customer. The rabbi granted Kaddish such an unusual name in hopes it would protect him. As the book evolves, you'll see that the name has indeed shaped his character as well as his actions. Many of the "respectable" Jews in Argentina at the time had forbearers who also engaged in illicit and illegal activities, while sporting colorful names such as Hezzi Two-Blades.

Kaddish has been looking for the big score all of his life, but hasn't found it. As the book opens, Kaddish is busy defacing a grave in the older part of the Jewish cemetery so that a connection to a dubious forbearer can be disguised.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 67 reviews
55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
"The troubles always start when they start for you." Aug. 3 2007
By Gregory Baird - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Set in the Argentina of 1976 - a dark and violent time of upheaval - "The Ministry of Special Cases" is about a family torn apart by a power-corrupted government. It centers primarily on the actions of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan after their teenaged son, Pato, is `disappeared' by mysterious officials one night, perhaps never to be seen again. Kaddish and Lillian are locked in a futile race against time, knowing that every day their son is missing the likelihood that he has not survived increases. But how can they penetrate the defenses of the government and the police to get information regarding a son whose existence is now denied? At best, Kaddish and Lillian are told that their son must have run away from them, and are advised to give up their search before making `needless' trouble. But the Poznans know the truth about Pato's disappearance - Kaddish was home when his son was escorted from their apartment by mysterious men, who also removed three of Pato's books that they had deemed inappropriate.

The search for their son leads Lillian to Argentina's Ministry of Special cases, where hundreds of people line up and fight for information about missing loved ones, and are frustrated by bureaucratic dead-ends. Worse than the government's unswerving apathy toward Kaddish and Lillian is the fearfully uncaring attitude that they find from general citizens they turn to for assistance. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own problems to care about the Poznan's plight - and much too afraid of losing their own family if they anger the government. Until their own son was taken from them Kaddish and Lillian themselves had been blind to the severity of the problem - Lillian is genuinely startled to find so many people waiting at the Ministry of Special Cases, and dismayed to hear from a couple that is finally giving up hope after two long years of no news.

The strength of Englander's story is that the Poznans are a believable family unit. They are not the utopian family of amateur fiction, but a realistic family burdened by animosity and failure and bitter disappointment. Kaddish is marked by his low birth - an `hijo de puta' who will never earn respect or dignity, and the spectacular failures of his numerous get-rich-quick schemes to overcome his status have put a great deal of strain on his marriage to Lillian, who had believed in his abilities as a young (naïve?) young woman. And Pato is your typical disgruntled teenager; he hates his parents, acts out, runs away to his friends' home, smokes pot, and refuses to listen to their sage advice that could have kept him safe. And yet the reader feels the strength of their familial bond thanks to Englander's prodigious talents as a writer. Despite their fighting, it feels devastating when the Poznans are torn apart.

But is "The Ministry of Special Cases" for everyone? No. Englander is a gifted writer, but his eccentricities will turn some readers off as unnecessary and annoying. As a fan of Nathan Englander's story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories, perhaps I was already primed for his style before picking this book up, but I enjoy his quirks and I have spoken to several other people who do too. For those who can appreciate them, "Ministry" is a one-of-a-kind treat and an amazing novel.
Grade: A-
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Low Comedy and Sharp Wit Lead to Laughter, Tears, Sadness, Hope, Desolation, and Absolution July 2 2007
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Seldom has a novel commanded so many of my emotions. My heart felt like a piano on whose strings a master musician was playing both polkas and dirges. But most of all, Mr. Englander kept surprising me. I usually read mysteries to enjoy fictional surprises, but The Ministry of Special Cases provided many more surprises than any mystery I've read in recent years.

When I began reading the book, I had to stop and start over. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It's almost as though Hamlet started with the grave digger's scene.

How can I summarize this book? I'm not sure I can do so accurately, but I'll hit some of the right notes of I call this book Don Quixote at The Trial. In the process, Mr. Englander unerringly portrays a society that's failing because each person only wants to look out for himself or herself.

You will find yourself in Argentina during the beginning of the "dirty war" when many young people disappeared. What would it like to be a parent of such a young person? That's what you will graphically experience by reading The Ministry of Special Cases.

Kaddish Poznan was conceived through an accident between his prostitute mother and a customer. The rabbi granted Kaddish such an unusual name in hopes it would protect him. As the book evolves, you'll see that the name has indeed shaped his character as well as his actions. Many of the "respectable" Jews in Argentina at the time had forbearers who also engaged in illicit and illegal activities, while sporting colorful names such as Hezzi Two-Blades.

Kaddish has been looking for the big score all of his life, but hasn't found it. As the book opens, Kaddish is busy defacing a grave in the older part of the Jewish cemetery so that a connection to a dubious forbearer can be disguised. That's how Kaddish earns his cigarette money. His university student son, Pato, is a reluctant participant. Father and son are in continual conflict. Kaddish's wife, Lillian, supports the family by working hard for little pay in an insurance broker's office. Concerned about safety, she is soon out buying the strongest door she can locate.

I won't go into more of the story from there lest I give away important details, but you'll find the plot to be amazingly well constructed to open up unexpected doors to empathy and understanding as you identify with one or both of the parents and wonder what you would do to keep your youngster safe.

How can I summarize what I feel about the book? It's a masterpiece.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
"In every people's history there are times best forgotten." July 12 2008
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It's difficult to believe this is a first novel. Indeed, Englander has written two books here, blending themes and forms in a setting alien to his native Long Island: the Jewish community in Argentina during the mid-1970s "Dirty War," when thousands of citizens, including many students, were "disappeared" by the authoritarian regime of Jorge Rafael Videla.

One novel--the first half--is a family drama featuring Kaddish Poznan, who lives a blithely contented life as an outcast from Buenos Aires's "respectable" Jewish society and who hires himself out to upper-crust families who want to expunge the evidence of their less-than-reputable ancestors. Kaddish, a somewhat endearing buffoon always on the cusp of becoming rich (or so he thinks), lives with his long-suffering wife, Lillian, who provides her family with a more reliable source of income by working in an insurance office, and a son, Paco, a university student embarrassed by his father's uncouthness.

Englander has most often been compared to I. B. Singer, and with reason: Kaddish would feel right at home in a Polish shtetl or in an Upper West Side diner, and the familial strife is torn right from the pages of "The Family Moskat." Yet the conflict between father and son couldn't possibly lead more suddenly and seamlessly from what David Roskies has called the "demonic realism" of a Singer tale to the Kafkaesque terror in the second half of the book. Kaddish and Lillian are forced from the parochialism of their neighborhood into the claustrophobic hallways of a malicious bureaucracy and the dark-lit alleys of a frightened city. The familial nightmare rends Kaddish and Lillian, who had always lived in a fragile harmony and who choose separate paths to determine their son's fate.

There are moments and scenes where the Argentinean setting feels researched rather than experienced--Englander's South America seems never that far away from New York--but the universality of this family's love and grief ultimately transcends hemispheres. But what's truly noteworthy is the author's ability to balance horror and humor, tragedy and comedy, realism and fabulism. While the government is erasing its citizens and respectable citizens are erasing their pasts, Kaddish and Lillian are erasing their noses in a comic set piece on plastic surgery that may turn out to be the final word in fiction on nose jobs. And that's ultimately what the novel is about: the often foolish, occasionally evil, but never successful desire to obliterate the past.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A trick and a blessing June 26 2007
By JoAnne Goldberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I picked up Ministry of Special Cases at 10 p.m., figuring I would plow through 20 pages before falling asleep. Captivated by its peculiar melancholy and its ability to maintain a precise balance between optimism and resignation, I didn't stop turning pages until I got to the last one.

If you choose books for their clever and detailed plots, Ministry will disappoint you. But if you revel in complex characters and writing that transports you to a particular time and place, then Ministry will suck you in and keep you mesmerized.

The book works on many levels. For starters, it evokes the horrors of Argentina in the post-Peron period. But it goes far beyond historical fiction, interweaving themes of love--among family members, co-workers, and even strangers-- with topics ranging from class differences to Jewish alienation to loss and futility. At its core, it's a novel about the absurdity of existence. Englander manages to squeeze an epic into a few hundred pages, with a style that is unembellished yet poignant.

My only quibble with the book is that Pato, the family son, functions mostly as a literary device, exemplified by the opening graveyard scene in which he is serving as a counterbalancing weight for Kaddish's gravestone defacement. That image recurs throughout the book, as Pato mirrors and reacts to his parents but does not emerge as a fully realized character himself. We feel his parents' anguish when he is disappeared, but we don't miss him as a person.

But such flaws are minor, and do nothing to diminish the lyricism and the humor, which manages to stay on the sober side of slapstick. Any author who can spin phrases like "the seam where the seedy underground was sewn to the seat of power" and "if everyone believes the same lie, isn't it, maybe, the truth?" is worth your time.

Ministry of Special Cases will crawl into your head and haunt your dreams--if you can sleep after you finish it.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Elgance and Humanity shine in this book April 7 2008
By Ernest Boehm - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is profound in both its tragedy and humor. This book is one that will change the history of the novel. The way this book deals with mankind on the level of family, individual and part of the state is mesmerizing. Kaddish Pozen, his wife Lillian and there son Pato will be glued into your memory. This book is about mans struggle to overcome when one has already lost , what is most dear. This book is about when one should give up but can't.

This book travails the life of a father and mother who lose their son in a terrible buracracy and never know if they will find him. This is the novel of the nobilty of a man and a woman who do not do every thing right but do most things even their mistakes for the most nobel of reason. This book show the potential evil of governments and buracrats.


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