Abril 30, 2007

Book Review: 'The Ministry of Special Cases' by Nathan Englander

A young Jew becomes one of los Desaparecidos, in Argentina's 'Dirty War' of the late 1970s.

By Mark Rozzo, Mark Rozzo is a critic living in New York.
April 29, 2007

Alex Nabaum For The Times

LAST January, a 75-year-old woman, María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón, was arrested at her home near Madrid. She is more familiarly known as Isabel Perón, former president of Argentina, third and final wife of Juan Perón and now, three decades after her brief reign, an exile awaiting extradition to Argentina for questioning in connection with the 1976 disappearance of a student activist named Héctor Aldo Fagetti Gallego and decrees she signed calling for the annihilation of "subversive elements" throughout Argentina. A military coup in March 1976 removed her from power. But Argentina's Dirty War was already underway: Over the next seven years, as many as 30,000 citizens, mostly students and unionists, would be silently and systematically erased from existence. They would become known as los Desaparecidos — the disappeared.

In recent years, the Dirty War has itself nearly disappeared from collective memory, at least beyond the borders of Argentina. Yet the arrival of "The Ministry of Special Cases," a first novel set in Argentina circa 1976 by Nathan Englander, author of the widely praised 1999 story collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," comes at a propitious time (if you can call it that). In addition to Perón's arrest, a former Argentine naval officer is now on trial for human-rights abuses, having confessed his part in the infamous vuelos de la muerte — the "death flights" in which drugged abductees were tossed from airplanes into the wide, brown Rio de la Plata. Meanwhile, an exhibition at New York's Museo del Barrio called "The Disappeared" examines, through the work of Latin American artists, the war's lingering aftershocks.

"The Ministry of Special Cases" — which may have its roots in Englander's stay in Buenos Aires in 1990 — is a mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory, spun out with a fabulism that recalls Isaac Bashevis Singer and only serves to heighten the absurdity and horror of the Dirty War. It's a family drama layered with agonized and often comical filial connections that are stretched to the snapping point by terrible circumstance.

The husband and father is Kaddish Poznan (a loaded name if ever there was one). He is an hijo de puta (the son of a whore) and belongs to a community of lowdown Buenos Aires Jews living in the shadow of their assimilated bourgeois neighbors. This split in the Jewish community extends to Kaddish's workplace, the walled-off cemetery of the Society of the Benevolent Self, home of deceased Jewish pimps, prostitutes and other salty characters, where he toils with hammer and chisel, chipping away the names of the dead.

"[W]hat I offer is a face-lift for the family name," the enterprising Kaddish tells a potential client, alluding to the beloved Argentine pastime of cosmetic surgery. Arriviste and newly respectable Jews, it seems, have lately become more anxious than ever to sever their familial ties to such past luminaries as Hezzi Two-Blades, "One-Eye" Weiss and Bryna the Vagina: The rumors of disappearances have begun to spread, and Jews (as Kaddish's patrons observe) tend to stand out — particularly those with the Society of the Benevolent Self in their history.

If Kaddish believes he offers a valuable service, his son, Pato (the name means "duck"), is having none of it. Bookish, bright, secretive, well-meaning and rebellious, Pato is busy loafing his way through college with a joint in one hand and Marcuse in the other. Kaddish's loving and hectoring wife, Lillian, meanwhile, represents whatever respectability the Poznans can lay claim to. She works in an insurance office, where recent conditions have been good for business: The threat of disappearance has prompted many Porteños (inhabitants of Buenos Aires) to upgrade their policies.

Englander is masterly at establishing this trio, with their mix of affection and mutual disappointment — and their brush with rhinoplasty, as Kaddish, ever the wheeler-dealer, arranges to get paid in free nose jobs. As the Poznans heal up (Kaddish and Lillian, anyway; Pato naturally begs off, horrified), we brace for the inevitable. Soon enough, Lillian encounters a tank near the Plaza de Mayo. The military coup has arrived, and the mood is lumbering, eerily calm. "War is not unleashed," Lillian realizes as she heads for the office. "It is slowly, it is carefully, installed."

The same could be said of this novel, which builds with breathtaking, perfectly wrought pacing and calm, terrifying logic. After Pato and his pals attend a Luis Alberto Spinetta concert (Spinetta, with Charly García, is one of the twin pillars of Argentine rock), they're rounded up with the other stoners and tossed into a bus with blacked-out windows. But even though Pato is caught without his ID, he's returned to his parents — sigh of relief — after a night in jail. "I wish you'd never been born," an enraged Kaddish tells his son. He gets his wish almost instantly, as Pato is whisked off into a waiting green Ford Falcon — the notorious Falcon verde, favored conveyance of government agents.

And so begins the frantic search for Pato, with each turn taking Kaddish and Lillian farther and farther away from their son and from each other. There is no evidence, no witness, no body and — after Pato's ID is confiscated by the local precinct, where the couple go to report him as missing — no proof that he ever existed. Argentina has entered an era in which "neighbors heard nothing, no matter how loud." A high-ranking general whom the Poznans have managed to corner tells them, "I can't undo what's not been done." The Ministry of Special Cases, where Lillian returns day after day, turns into a labyrinth of bureaucratic dead ends worthy of Gogol. A kindly priest who offers to help may, in fact, just be shaking down the parents who line the ministry's corridors; the president of the United Jewish Congregations of Argentina can't even get Pato's name on the synagogue's list of the missing.

"In each telling it was as if her son had never been," we learn, as Lillian makes her weary rounds. "The idea of absence had acquired its own fierce momentum." When she gazes at her "two-bit bad-debt first-time nose job" in the mirror, she can no longer find her own son in her revised, deracinated face.

How to honor the dead, if there's no way to prove they are in fact dead? The question drives Kaddish to distraction and "The Ministry of Special Cases" to its macabre end. As suggested by the current wave of trials in Argentina, this impossible question lingers for thousands of Argentine fathers and mothers and grandparents, most famously the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have gathered in protest every Thursday in Buenos Aires for decades.

On the novel's extensive acknowledgments page, Englander — curiously enough — cites Seymour Hersh's "The Gray Zone," a New Yorker piece that examined the role of the U.S. Department of Defense in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. It may be a stretch to connect Argentina's junta to contemporary America. But then you contemplate the ongoing war against a stateless enemy, the consolidation of power in the executive branch and the military, the government spying on the citizenry, the unlimited detentions at Guantánamo.

One doubts that Englander, with all his narrative panache, would boil "The Ministry of Special Cases" down to a facile "It can happen here." But certainly the Poznans' agony could happen again, somewhere, and in certain parts of the world it does. As Lillian muses, "It's like standing in the ocean and facing the beach. It's up to you to know what's behind you. Always there's another wave coming, building in force and crashing down."

Posted by marga at Abril 30, 2007 3:39 PM | TrackBack
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