The Ministry of Special Cases
In Buenos Aires in 1976, a family of Argentine Jews, Kaddish and Lillian Poznan and their son Pato, make personal the untold numbers of the “disappeared” of Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Kaddish’s odd job is removing the names from gravestones in the Jewish burial ground for the lower classes. Kaddish is the son of a prostitute himself and so understands the wish to obliterate the past. Pato is a college student, more outspoken than his parents, who worry over him in the new political climate of repression. Kaddish burns some of his son’s books; Lillian has a steel door installed on their apartment. Neither act can save their son after a police raid.
Lillian enters the Orwellian world of the military junta bureaucracy to find her son. The Ministry of Special Cases of the novel’s title helps Argentinians flee the country as well as assist them in finding their “disappeared” loved ones. But officially, Pato has been erased out of existence itself. While Lillian is determined to find him, Kaddish becomes convinced, through his search of unofficial agencies, that Pato is dead. The parents’ last stop is with the hierarchy of the country’s Jewish community.
Questions about the nature of truth and identity and what should be valued carry this novel beyond its specifics. Englander’s lyrical prose brings grace and beauty to the Poznan family’s refusal to accept the government’s lies. Their son remains alive in their own minds even as his altered face dims, even for his loving and determined mother.