19 April 2010

You are a Runner and I am My Father's Son

#16 The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

When I first borrowed this book from the library, I didn't really know what it was about. I'm trying to think how I even came across this book and became interested in it, but it's not coming to me. I'm pretty sure it's been on my GoodReads list for 2 or 3 years.


The Ministry of Special Cases has many elements to it, but the idea of family is it's strongest theme and most interesting, without a doubt. The book revolves around a Jewish Argentinean family during the country's Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s. During that time, 30,000 people disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. This is, of course, because they disagreed with the government being a military dictatorship.

The Poznan family consists of Kaddish, Lillian and their teenage son, Pato. Kaddish is an outsider both to the Argentinean and Jewish community because he is literally, the son of a whore. His job to deface the gravestones of deceased Jews who had less than noble professions so that their children's reputations aren't ruined. Lillian works for an insurance company and watches as the client pool gets larger as the "war" goes on. People want to protect their families and make sure they're taken care of in case their political leanings make them disappear. However, the war hits home when Pato goes missing. Kaddish and Lillian dedicate themselves to finding their son, their only son.

I loved the family's interactions. If Englander's writing wasn't so strong in describing them, I probably would have lost interest in the book after some time. There was a lot of waiting and getting my hopes up, only to get cut down again. Kaddish and Pato have a fiery relationship and Englander isn't afraid to show how ugly the relationship between a father and his rebellious teenage son can sometimes be. Like any father, Kaddish is trying to protect Pato and do what's best for him, but like any son, Pato is in complete disagreement with his father's ways and ideas. Lillian is the mediator, the rock, and provides stability within the family. Once Pato goes missing, Kaddish and Lillian grow apart because one is the optimist and the other a pessimist (realist?) regarding what has happened to him. Lillian takes the official routes in finding Pato, going to the Ministry of Special Cases and talking to officials, while Kaddish prefers to go underground (which is what his profession taught him to do).

As someone who likes history, I wished that the book contained more facts about the Dirty War. Yet it was also interesting to see it from the Poznan family's standpoint. People didn't know much and Lillian and Kaddish's ordeal showed it perfectly. For them it was like being dropped in the middle of a maze and dared to find their way out. They didn't know where to go, they just tried any and every channel to get answers about Pato's disappearance.

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