Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book Review: The Ministry of Special Cases

The problem many would-be writers encounter is in telling the tale about the right person in the right circumstances: it's easy enough to come by if the situation is ordinary. It is easy to come by if the character is ordinary. But when you start introducing the extraordinary, it is very easy to fall into cliche. Think Superman fighting supervillians; it may be exciting, but what is more wondrous is Joe Shmo taking on a large corporation and winning. Think The Rain Maker; that's a better movie than any Superman flick.

Not everybody knows the details of Argentina's Dirty War, but the tales of The Desaparecidos, the thousands of citizens who were neither officially missing or dead, haunt the country still. And it is into the midst of this extraordinary national nightmare that Nathan Englander drops Kaddish Poznan, his extraordinary character.

Kaddish Poznan makes his money by erasing the past; the only Jewish man in all of Buenos Aires to admit to being the son of a whore and pimp, he is an outcast, but a useful one. The other remaining Jews in the community pay him to remove their parents' names from the gravestones and records, so no trace of their disreputable past remains. But one day, Kaddish's son Pato is taken from their home, and Kaddish discovers that he is not the only one in the business of erasing a person's existence.

The story takes us from the silent graveyard to halls of power, and everywhere in between, and eventually to the halls of the Ministry of Special Cases, a bureaucratic monstrosity. Kaddish's hopelessness clashes with his wife's determination to bring their son home alive.

But this is more than just a story of one family's struggle to reunite (or not); it is a story about oppression, the frustration felt by those who are oppressed, and the desperation that comes along.

If you know about the Dirty War, or if you don't, this book is for you. It opens your eyes with the same immediate intensity as a U2 song, but it holds onto you the way Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings can. It is both terrible and beautiful, and exactly as it should be. And it speaks to the permanence of the past; the names are gone but the headstones remain. Pato may never walk into their home again, but Lillian and Kaddish remember him. There is a moment when Kaddish removes a name woven in gold thread from a velvet curtain, and when he steps away the name is yet more legible, as time has tarnished the curtain except where the gold thread covered it. This image stands out foremost in my mind, and that is the mark of a good story, and a good writer. No superheroes and no cliches.

Nathan Englander spoke on Fresh Air on NPR May 7th, 2007, which is where I first heard of it.

1 comment:

Molly said...

I can't wait to read it... but I think you gave away too much!!!