Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases introduced me to the history of the disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s. Until reading the book I knew nothing at all about the country or its history, and yet I can’t help feeling I should have known this history, horrific and terrifying as it is.
The novel introduces the military junta, the kidnappings and the murders so slowly and with such hesitance – we first follow a mother, father and son, and then, after the son, Pato, is disappeared, just Lillian and Kaddish – that it isn’t until Kaddish interrogates a navigator on one of the death planes that the full force of the crimes are made clear to the reader. The comic character of Kaddish, forever incapable of doing anything right, likewise contributes to sense of understated violence. Indeed, in very few scenes does the reader encounter descriptions of the imprisonment of the disappeared or the circumstances of their eventual death. With one exception the point of view of the disappeared is never described, an effective way as any, I suppose, to communicate the force of their removal from the world and their families.
Kaddish and Lillian’s kafka-esque search for information regarding Pato’s whereabouts and the frustrating futility of all their searches are difficult to read. The occasional Kaddish-failure makes these scenes – inexplicably – humouros: a dark humour not often encountered. The poignancy of the novel comes from the fracture between Lilianne and Kaddish and the ultimate decision each reader must make whether to believe with Lillian or to believe with Kaddish, and to know that never knowing might be the most painful part of all.