Counting the invisible
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Counting the invisible

The Ministry of Special Cases- a novel that reconstructs the trauma of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’, writes Shreevatsa Nevatia.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2007 16:19 IST
Shreevatsa Nevatia
Shreevatsa Nevatia
Hindustan Times

The Ministry of Special Cases
Author: Nathan Englander
Publication: Faber
Price: Rs 695,

Readers of 1984 will agree that The Ministry of Special Cases is a distinctively Orwellian title. But unlike the 1948 classic, which constructs a futuristic dystopia, Nathan Englander’s debut novel goes back in time to reconstruct the inferno that is 1976 Argentina.

As Eva Perón is ousted in a coup and a military government starts to wage a ‘Dirty War’ against its own people, Englander’s characters find themselves caught in a spiralling vortex from which there isn’t any obvious escape. As the country moves from being a relative heaven to an all-out hell, the novel simultaneously moves from being comic to tragic, and by the time you are halfway through, there is hardly any respite in store.

The experience of reading the novel can be best described in Englander’s own words — “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.”

It would be hard to come across a protagonist as hapless, bumbling and clumsy as Kaddish Poznan. Son of a Jewish prostitute, Kaddish too works by night to earn his living. He chisels out the names of disreputable Jewish ancestors from their gravestones, in order to give their families a clean slate with which to function in ‘respectable’ society.

This simultaneous act of disappearance and defacement metaphorically underpins much of the novel. Kaddish and Lillian’s son, Pato, is one among the 30,000 persons who ‘disappear’ under the rule of the military junta. As they set out on their search for him, they are forced to realise that much like their son, they too are invisible in Argentine society — “Pretending Kaddish wasn’t there was no great feat. It was the easiest thing in Argentina to effect.”

Englander successfully juxtaposes the personal with the historical to weave a narrative that for most part operates from the fringe of society. The pain and trauma inflicted during the Dirty War surfaces with devastating intensity when Lillian pleads with bureaucrats and military officials at the Ministry of Special Cases to return her son, when Kaddish asks a rabbi if there is any way for a Jew to be buried without a body and when an ex-navy officer describes the throwing of living innocents from planes into the sea.

The weight of a national crisis falls squarely on the backs of families such as the Poznans, who are unable to bear the burden of absence. While Kaddish resigns himself to the belief that his son is dead, Lillian will not give up until she has found enough evidence — “It took madness ... for two conflicting realities to exist at once. For Lillian and Kaddish in Argentina, it also did not. Everything and its opposite. As in the case of a son that is both living and dead.”

Though Englander’s debut is impressive in most part, his almost Proustian attention to detail makes sections of the novel a tedious read. By the time you turn the last page, you wish that more questions had been answered, a bit more explained. But then, it’s perhaps that ‘not knowing’ which makes one empa-thise with the plight of the novel’s central characters.

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 16:14 IST