A book review of The Ministry of Special Cases in four parts


Your only son was probably drugged and thrown out of an airplane. And yet you know you will never see a confirming body, because it’s disappeared with the rest of the victims of Argentina’s Dirty War. And your wife alternatively visits morgues, searching for her son’s face, and stares out her apartment window, waiting for him to walk around the street corner. And while your son is both living and dead – the most painful characteristic of the desaparecidos – you still have to work your day job knocking Jewish names off gravestones. You still have to walk through the cemetery, the cruel reminder that bones should always belong to someone and that someone should always belong to bones. Meanwhile you don’t feel guilty that the last time you saw your 18-year-old son, right before he was taken away by the secret police, you told him that you wished he’d never been born. You know that in the intervening days of torture chambers and one-way flights, he has grown up enough to know that you didn’t mean it. And so you walk around with part of yourself erased. Half your nose is missing because a plastic surgeon lopped it off to pay a debt. Your son has your nose, and he wanders with it somewhere, like a character in Gogol. You have exhausted all means of seeing your face again.


Englander and Rivka Galchen:

At some point, early on, I decided I liked the speed of pen and paper. It slows me down. I like the way it looks. And that doesn’t mean I won’t write the next novel on computer. I just might. And I just might do it in six weeks. And it just might be called The Big Booby Car Chase and contain one sex scene, one fiery car chase, and end with the bad guy shot in the eye, and the hero in love.

Englander and Bookslut:

I would tell myself all the time while I was writing it, “The book isn’t called Look How Smart Nathan Is or Look at Nathan’s Most Excellent Theories.” I’d come up with these huge theories about society, about totalitarianism and write them into dialogue or whatever. Even the conversation between Lillian and the priest, there was a 30 or 40 page conversation that was one of the most painful cuts. I thought, I’m going to challenge myself, I’m going to get this down — my 30 page point that I’ve spent years dreaming, the whole social philosophy, I’m going to say it in a line. And it makes me plain happy if anyone notices, if that line pops.

Englander and The New York Times:

It has been eight years since you published your collection of stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” What have you been doing all this time?

A novel is not a long short story, and I had to learn how to write one. It was so important to me that my novel not feel like, “Oh, look at these linked stories that don’t crumble when you lay them side by side.”


From Will Blythe’s NYT review:

. . . .[Englander’s] themes devour the real; history seems invented to provide all those elegant variations on disappearance, on loss of identity.

In a jail cell, for instance, an imprisoned girl discovers tiny notes Pato has left behind in a mattress. She reads them, swallows them for safekeeping and then is thrown into the sea, where writing and girl dissolve in the motion of the waves — indecipherable, vanished. It’s an unbearably lyrical passage. And that feels false.

Doesn’t the larger-than-life quality of the fable employed here make the disappeared disappear again, not into the sea but into a fairy tale of redemption and continuity? Englander softens the jagged edges of history too much; the Dirty War becomes a stage set for explorations of identity. Beautifully written, “The Ministry of Special Cases” nonetheless presents a conundrum. Englander does in fiction what his absent God cannot: create a world. And then he peoples that world with characters that he treats better than history ever would. Such decency is not a large failing in a young novelist. If only the junta had been half so kind.

Blythe, what are you talking about? How is the story of a mother, a father, and a son living in Argentina in 1976 “larger-than-life”? Do you know what life is? Have you ever read a novel? This is not a nonfiction book about the Dirty War. This is the circumscribed world of one family where symbolism and humor and tragedy combine to honor fictional human beings living in the midst of something real. A novel is not a fairy tale or a fable. It’s made-up life that rings true. As Tom Scharpling would say, “Get off my phone!”

From Richard Lipez’s review in The Washington Post:

. . . .Englander obviously has thought hard about how to best handle [The Dirty War] fictively, but despite his ample talents, not all of his choices succeed.

For instance, while the novel starts with an omniscient point of view, with all three Poznans’ thoughts and experiences revealed, we lose Pato when his parents do. In a climactic section, we penetrate the thoughts of a brutally tortured girl in a bunk once occupied by Pato, moments before she is pushed, alive, from an airplane. She has discovered notes written by Pato — but Englander announces that he won’t reveal their contents. ‘It wouldn’t be right … to share Pato’s message when neither Kaddish nor Lillian will hear it, when neither parent will learn that those notes ever were.’

The tone grates. It’s not that literary experimentation and the horrors of war are necessarily incompatible — as Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam fiction has proved. But here Englander’s postmodernism comes off as a posture, a bit coy and grandstanding. Somehow, torture makes a reader lose the appetite for metafictional high jinks.

I like reading bad reviews as much as the next writer, but this one is bullshit. Lipez cites the ONLY line in the whole book that could be interpreted as metafictional or postmodern, and then he uses it to make a blanket statement about a novel which is decidedly unmannered.

I agree that the note-in-the-bunk scene stands out a little disagreeably. I like it, but it doesn’t seem in keeping with the rest of the book. I read the scene as fantasy, however. It’s something that may or may not have happened after a young man may or may not have died. Pato simultaneously disappears from his parents’ lives and from the reader’s view, and capital-t-Truth goes with him.

Anyway, I choose to defend Englander against these critical allegations because defending your own novel is pretentious. He will thank me for this later.


Finally, a personal note. A close friend of mine was recently committed to a mental institution in a foreign country. [The more you get to know me, the more you will come to realize that mental illness runs in my circle of friends.] It didn’t take me long to forge a parallel between that situation and Pato’s (the disappeared son in Englander’s book). In Pato’s case, we know he exists and yet the world around him (the Videla government) denies it. In my friend’s case, we insist that the alternative universe she’s been living in lately is pure delusion. Neither person is allowed to live his or her “lie.”

It’s a very loose parallel – 30,000 people killed versus one woman locked up temporarily for her own benefit – but it just goes to show how powerful belief is, and how easily it becomes insanity. In Argentina, the government’s belief that 30,000 people never existed is just as crazy to reflect upon as my friend’s thinking she is Mary Magdalene. It’s a wonder that with all the creative delusions in our world, both in and out of mental hospitals, anyone is ever called on them at all.

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