The Ministry of Special Cases, By Nathan Englander

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The Independent Culture

Nathan Englander's sober, precisely-written novel has a flavour of Kafka about it, but it is no fantasy. It begins almost lightheartedly, focusing on the Argentinian Jewish stonemason Kaddish, and his strange employment of erasing from headstones the names of ancestors that respectable Jews are ashamed of. Then his son, Patos, goes missing, and Kaddish and his wife, Lillian, in opposed and equally hopeless ways, attempt to trace him.

Buenos Aires in 1976 was not a good place to disappear. A place where neighbours were afraid even to mention the disappearance; where you could queue up at the Ministry of Special Cases to find out more and be given a ticket with the number 456 on as nine is being called; where if you persisted in your enquiries the police might beat you to death with a telephone directory (it leaves no marks). It's hard to know which is worse – the casual brutality or the insolent bureaucracy with which the junta protected itself.