Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Argentine government waged the “Dirty War,” a reign of violence against citizens considered by the regime to be dissidents. Tens of thousands of people disappeared during this time. The Ministry of Special Cases is the story of the Poznan family during this time.
Kaddish Poznan is quite literally the son of a whore. For a fee, respectable Jewish citizens can hire Kaddish to erase names from tombstones in the disrespectable part of a graveyard housing the remains of pimps and whores. Have something to hide about the past? Kaddish will fix things up. To assist with his business, Kaddish forces his university student son, Pato, to come along. Pato, however, wants nothing to do with it. He would rather spend time smoking pot with his friends and reading books of which the current military regime disapproves. Kaddish and wife Lillian attempt to keep Pato out of trouble - they know the political atmosphere - but being young he refuses to listen. After attending a concert and smoking pot with his friends, Pato is abducted by several anonymous men. Kaddish and Lillian know only too well that it is the government’s doing. They must now seek help in police stations, government ministries and with influential figures to find their son.
There is something strange about The Ministry of Special Cases. There is an almost light-hearted feel to the book. This is easy enough to explain at first, as Kaddish and Pato have an almost comical relationship and an almost comical occupation. But even as things turn desperate after Pato’s disappearance, the atmosphere of the novel remains almost light. Kaddish and Lillian, particularly Lillian, become desperate in their search; however, the situation never feels tragic. As they continually fail to discover the whereabouts of their son, one would expect the mood of the book to become utterly bleak. The prose fails to provoke this tone.
Despite this, it is apparent that Nathan Englander has an ability to write. Each character in the book is endowed with a unique personality; no two feel the same, which is a problem many authors are unable to avoid. Kaddish finds his own way to fail at many things he attempts; his plans fall through with unlucky frequency, while Lillian has a confidence that allows her to make good on most things she attempts. The two find these differences difficult to reconcile. They try their own ways to find their son, both thinking separately that they know the way to go about things.
Unfortunately, the inability to lend a truly tragic air to the story provides a setback that Englander is unable to overcome. The novel, though well-written, falters in its weaknesses. The Ministry of Special Cases is recommended only to those who enjoy Englander’s previous work or find the subject matter particularly intriguing.