Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

Title: The Ministry of Special Cases
Author: Nathan Englander
Publisher: Knopf
Published Date: January 1, 2007
Source: Library

Why You're Reading This Book:
  • You like books with a lot of symbolism and meaning.
  • You don't mind sort of nebulous books that take awhile to figure out.
  • You're a fan of authors like Kafka.
What's the Story?:

From "Since the publication in 1999 of Nathan Englander's debut work, a collection of short stories entitled For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, readers have eagerly awaited the novel that the Jerusalem-based author was rumored to be writing. The Ministry of Special Causes rewards the wait, telling the tale of Jews threatened by Argentina's "Dirty War" of the 1970s and '80s. The main character, Kaddish Pozman, has a clandestine cemetery job as an eraser of tombstone surnames, at the behest of Buenos Aires Jews frantically trying to conceal their heritage and protect themselves from the looming government terror. A haunting novel; a promise fulfilled."

My Two Cents:

Kaddish is sort of on the outskirts of society. Literally a son of a whore, he isn't really welcome into mainstream society. He does the best that he can do and is allowed to perform a job as an eraser of names in Jewish graveyards. His son, Pato, is a university student in Argentina. This is the 1970s and the Dirty War is in play. Basically during the Dirty War, anyone seeming to not be in line with the military junta in charge had a chance of being "disappeared," where they would be taken away by the government never to be seen again. 

Pato is taken away by the military junta, which throws Kaddish and Lillian, his wife into an uproar. Both deal with the tragedy in different ways. Kaddish is willing to believe that his son is probably dead and never returning. Lillian, on the other hand, decides to try to deal with the bureaucracy that is Argentina's government at the time and try to find out what happened to her son. 

I read this book for book club and feel like I got a lot more out of the book once discussing it within the club but admittedly, I didn't like it much after first reading it. It's full of symbolism and after awhile, it seems like overkill. I don't mind a bit of symbolism (and in many cases, a bit of symbolism can add a lot to the book) but this was too much definitely. 

Another thing that I didn't care for in the book was the lack of a sense of place. It's supposed to take place during the Dirty War in Argentina but with the nebulous way that the book is written, you would never know where the book was written other than the author writing that they are in Argentina. I was definitely disappointed in that. I can't tell if the author wanted it to be that unclear as to where they were or what. 

The human story in the book, the story about a parent's love for their child is universal and important. I'm just not sure if this book really carried it off.

Bottom line: This book wasn't really for me.

My Review:
2 out of 5 stars


  1. I don't like books with too much symbolism either- sorry this wasn't a better read.

  2. It's a shame every book can't be a masterpiece. It's a shame this book was not.

  3. @Anne I had really high hopes for this one too!

  4. @celawerdblog I was just really looking forward to reading a historical fiction on Argentina. I'll have to find another one.


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