Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander

A Jewish family in Argentina during the Dirty War suffers an unimaginable loss. Kaddish and Lillian and their son Pato are managing to get by with Lillian's work and with Kaddish's occasional work when the police arrest Pato and take him away. Kaddish's work consists of destroying family names on tombstones in the disreputable part of the Jewish cemetery, so that persons with those names can claim to come from a better class of citizens. Kaddish, "son of a whore" himself, has long accepted the division of the cemetery so taking money to erase the past is not a moral issue for him.

There is nothing straightforward about Pato's disappearance. No police station will claim him. Nobody will file a report on his disappearance. Neighbors look blank when Kaddish and Lillian ask if they saw what happened. It is as if Pato never existed. This because everyone knows that anyone who aids a family that has been somehow marked by the present regime will be marked themselves. People cannot afford to help, for by doing so they may lose their lives.

Lillian and Kaddish disagree on how to help their son. They try some things together and other things apart. Finally Kaddish comes to believe Pato is dead while Lillian believes it is against their religion to believe so until they have seen his body. This difference in belief tears them apart.

The story is written with wry humor in spite of the dark subject matter. The Ministry of Special Cases, for example, is a classic bureaucracy and is justly skewered. Kaddish is drawn with a warm sympathy for his failings.

A revealing portrait of Argentina's Dirty War from the inside.

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