The Buenos Aires of Nathan Englander's harrowing and brilliant first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, is a city of disappearances. Names are effaced from gravestones, unseemly family histories are denied, plastic surgery distorts familial resemblances. Students are imprisoned; some may become victims of the vuelos de la muerte, or "death flights"—the tortured dissidents sedated and thrown from planes into the estuary that runs past the city into the Atlantic Ocean. Pato, the sweet-natured but rebellious teenage son of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan, is taken from their home one evening by a group of armed men, in front of his father's eyes. In an instant, Pato becomes one of the city's desaparecidos. Kaddish and Lillian can find no trace of their lost child and rapidly become invisible to their neighbors and fellow parents.
The novel is set in 1976, when a junta claimed power from Juan Perón's widow, Isabel, who had been signing decrees that gave the military the authority to "annihilate . . . subversive elements." Over the next seven years, the Argentinean government carried out a war against its citizens. According to official records, some nine thousand people were killed or "disappeared." (Human rights organizations estimate that the figure is closer to thirty thousand.)
Early on, Englander touches on Argentina's torturous past with a few oblique references to "the heyday of Evita, of the liberated worker and her shirtless ones." But he wisely hews entirely to the points of view of his triad of protagonists as they struggle to get purchases on history. The specifics of this time, this place, both matter and don't. The world of the Poznans—with its blockades and checkpoints, its abductions and labyrinthine bureaucracy, its paranoid, self-preserving populace and corrupt clergy—could be any country in the twentieth century under internal siege.
Lillian and Kaddish are only dimly aware of the gathering storm. On the day of the coup, Lillian passes the Pink House (a real-life building that still serves as the presidential home) en route to work. "A truckful of men point their guns at me," she tells a coworker, "and still I go on my way." Lillian and Kaddish semiconsciously make their livings off of the insecurities of their fellow citizens. She works in an insurance office, where "every permutation of bad fortune made it across her desk." He profits from his community's manic self-erasure. An hijo de puta—son of a whore—who refuses to deny his origins, he is rejected by the members of his synagogue, the Society of the Benevolent Self, who are now respectable but are likewise the children of gangsters and prostitutes. Nevertheless, they pay him large sums to sneak into the segregated part of the Jewish cemetery, where their disreputable ancestors are buried, to chisel their family names off of the tombstones. "A world that runs on shame," says Kaddish. The Poznans are outcasts from a larger community of outcasts: the Jews who reside in Ounce (pronounced "On-say"), the ghetto in the heart of Buenos Aires, the capital of a country that harbored Nazi war criminals. The fate of Kaddish, named after the Jewish prayer for the dead, seems predestined. Upon his birth, the rabbi in attendance pronounces, "Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned."
Pato's disappearance cleaves the book in two. Kaddish's comic schemes motor the first half. In exchange for removing names from the headstones of a plastic surgeon's ancestors, Kaddish accepts the doctor's services: nose jobs for the family. Lillian's new proboscis is significantly botched; later, the police doubt she is in fact related to her missing son. Pato refuses, wanting "no part of his father's cockamamie and perverse and misdirected plans." Since the boy's childhood, Kaddish and Pato have been locked in "the eternal father-son fight." Pato rebels against his parent's shifty career; Kaddish is weary from battling his child's college-student idealism. "I wish you were dead," Pato tells Kaddish. Kaddish's frustrated, appalling reply occurs moments before his son's complete erasure. Englander lets a sick-making question hang over the remainder of the book: Have Kaddish's misdirected plans, and a deeply buried rivalry with his son, somehow opened the door to Pato's abduction? Englander's answer might be "just enough." Lillian, whose bond with her son is unbreakable, is Englander's most indelible creation—she is practical, fearless, and tragically vulnerable. She places her faith in the system, navigating the ministry's endless red tape, and touchingly believes that the powerful figures benefiting from a military dictatorship might be capable of empathy. Kaddish watches helplessly as her inexhaustible hope becomes a kind of madness.
The men and women—many from Orthodox communities—whom Englander portrayed in his widely praised 1999 story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, valiantly fought against nearly unbeatable opponents: religious stricture and the great machine of political force. The heroes of his stories and novel have what Penelope Fitzgerald called "the courage of those who are born to be defeated." In The Ministry of Special Cases, Kaddish spirals into desperation as his hopes are systematically annihilated, while Lillian enters a world of delusion. Englander's great gifts are an absurdist sense of humor and a brisk, almost breezy narrative voice. He handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artist, before delivering the final, devastating blow. This is a book without a traditional ending—what resolution can there be for the survivors of the disappeared?
Still, the reader might imagine the fictional Lillian or Kaddish waking one morning in January of this year and finding a small, sour triumph in a real-life newspaper photo: Isabel Perón, an exile in Spain for the last twenty-six years, being placed under arrest for human rights abuses.
Peter Terzian is an editor at Culture and Travel magazine