The lives of Jews in Argentina were never easy – for Jews outside the mainstream, the prostitutes, bookies and pimps it was even harder. There came to be a very strict observation of class hierarchy between two groups, “The United Congregations” and the lower class “Society of the Benevolent Self.” This was apparent in the churches and cemeteries as well as in separate lives. The “Benevolent” Jews were buried in a separate cemetery, but as time went on their descendants became respectable so the names on the gravestones in the “Benevolent” cemetery were, on occasion, erased so the children could live free of that stigma.
Erasing the names from the gravestones of the un-respectable Jews is the job of our self-employed protagonist, a sorrowful but loving and sometimes charming loser named “Kaddish” (prayer of mourning) Poznan.
There is an historical example for Englander’s ‘Society for the Benevolent Self,” it was a mutual-aid society known as Chesed Shel Emet (The Benevolent Society of Truth), set up for the many, many female Eastern European Jewish immigrants forced into exile and the sex trade during the times between Kaisar Wilhelm and Adolph Hitler. Read more: http://www.forward.com/articles/10572/#ixzz1iAksMNqf
Englander’s gorgeously written tale is set later, when the presence of two cemeteries is seen as an atrocity. It takes place in Buenos Aires, circa 1976, at the outset of Argentina’s very historical and infamous “Dirty War.” It was during this time that 30,000 students, union members and political opponents were “disappeared” by the extreme military government which wanted to eradicate all traces of the liberal government which had gone before as well as possible rebellions against the new one. (see links below)
Other than Kaddish and his college-student son Pato, there is Lillian, Kaddish’s wife, a woman from the “Congregationalist” class of Jews. She is scared of the brutality of the new regime and buys a new solid door. She sees the tanks and hears the gunshots. But she goes to work anyway, with her neighbor, Cacho, her boss, Gustavo or others – mainly because this new regime’s terrorist methods have not yet touched her.
This is not a fast and light-weight read – There is a certain Mario Vargas Llosa (Feast of the Goat) here – or Edwidge Dandicatt (The Farming of Bones) believable characters in historical wars.
” Kaddish wondered if there’d ever been a wall built that someone hadn’t managed to cross. This one wasn’t much of a challenge. It wasn’t meant to stop the living but to separate the dead. ” (p. 8)
The narrative has some humorous moments, too. Like where Pato uses glue to hold a pipe together and almost has a seizure when he smokes it. Or the lit cigarette forgotten in the socks drawer. There’s humor in it – but this subject needs some humor breaks.
A huge theme is changing your Jewishness – from removing names on the gravestones in the bad cemetery to bringing luck to your husband (?) to cosmetic reconstruction of noses – these characters want to erase the bad Jewishness. Then they remove their books – then the whitewashing of fences and trees- removing signs and graffiti. All this is because of the coup known as Argentina’s Dirty War which had put General Jorge Videla in power replacing Isabel Peron.
This military dictatorship was retaliatory and repressive using mass violence including “disappearing” people who were suspected of not being supportive.
Pato is disappeared – “agents” simply come for him one night and he is gone – no records and he’s not in “detention. ” Lillian and Kaddish plead their son’s case to everyone including and especially the Ministry of Special Cases. Lillian, who is from the upper classes and Kaddish, who is from the lowest classes, each have their own way of dealing with the issue. Lillian wants to trust the government – Kaddish trusts money only.
It’s a mesmerizing and Kafkesque tale of the disappeared in Argentina –
I wondered about the necessity of the body for the funeral on page 295 and looked it up. I found the following at: http://www.benjamininstitute.ca/Articles/BurialPractices.cfm :
” Jewish family law requires the presence of the body at the funeral both as a means of confronting reality and showing the dead honour and respect. Israel negotiates the exchange of live captives for its fallen soldiers because of the importance of have the body at a funeral. It is not an option for Jews to conduct memorial services without the body in lieu of a funeral with the body present.”
One thing about this book is that the writing is beautiful from beginning to end. Often a book will start out with luscious writing but after the plot gets going the style drifts away only to be seen in small scattered smatterings. Not with The Ministry of Special Cases – every sentence is right on the mark for plot and beauty. I’ll have to look into Englander’s other works.
The Dirty War
Argentina’s Dirty War
New York Times Review: