Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Ministry of Special Cases

 Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Argentina, and deeper, in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, and deeper still, in a family of outcasts of that community. Kaddish Poznan, a man with the sometimes irritating feyness of the traditional Yiddish hero, is the son of a prostitute, a girl who sold herself in Odessa to save her family, and transshipped to be part of the stable of the Jewish pimps 'and alfonses' (still wondering what an alfonse is) who take care of the appetites of Argentina.
Kaddish, a name redolent with death, and Lillian, his disappointed wife, have a squabblesome love fuelled by his only work: chipping the names of the dead - at least those with currently wealthy descendants - from the gravestones in the Jewish graveyard's own ghetto, the place where these whores and pimps were laid to rest; names like Talmud Harry and Bryna the Vagina.
Lillian's own job in an insurance firm is giving her an exceptional insight into the Argentina of the 1970s, because everyone wants the life insured now, even the general and his wife who turn up with a new baby that's obviously not theirs. 
Englander has used the Yiddish tradition, and a sophisticated sense of plot and character, to open the graves of the Disappeared. Just as babies are appearing in unlikely families, other families' children are disappearing, and nobody says a word.
As Kaddish and Lillian try to protect their 19-year-old son, Pato Poznan, a university student at a time when sociology lecturers and scientists and girls of 16 are seen one day and never seen again the next, Englander brings them and his quivering reader on a tour of murder. Every word of his book is based on what actually happened in Argentina, and throughout South and Central America, in those years: the murder-complicit priest taking bribes, supposedly to find out what happened to the desperate parents' child; the drugged children thrown from planes into the river ("like hitting a brick wall" from that height), the torture with electricity, the babies of murdered people given to the families of their murderers and of the directors of their murders. 
Englander tries for the black Yiddish humour - Lillian and Kaddish 'cut off their nose to spite their face', accepting erased noses in payment for an erased name; this makes them suddenly handsome; a last desperate kidnap attempt fails because the kidnapper has not factored in the coldness of heart of the ransom source; bureaucracy is at the root of everything, because if they're frightened of nothing else, the forces of law and order are always afraid of a paper trail. 
Englander's incisive eye is merciless: no government can succeed in anything without the complicity of the majority, he points out (a point that could well be noted in Ireland today). 
His dialogue is heartrending; at one point a wealthy military couple explain that there are no disappearences, it's merely a question of lax discipline - all over South America undisciplined youngsters are taking off to go and sun themselves on the beaches of neighbouring countries. 
At last, the most memorable character isn't Kaddish or Lillian, or the tousle-haired, rebellious Pato, the crooked plastic surgeon or the smooth insurance man, but the broken man whose job it was to push the children from the planes, sleeping children.

No comments: