Friday, March 11, 2011

Book #11: "The Ministry of Special Cases" by Nathan Englander

If there's anything I hate more than reading a bad book, it's to be disappointed by a book I thought would be good. I came into this one with high hopes, as I had heard nothing but good things about it-funny, tragic, original, etc- and I could not have been more disappointed. I'm still not sure how I got through this plodding, miserable and depressing read, but it must have been a combination of stubbornness and of my dislike for leaving any book unfinished.

The story is set in Argentina in the 1970s, during a military dictatorship; a particularly dark time in the country's history. Kaddish Poznan is Jewish, the son of a prostitute, and he specializes in erasing the names off tombs in the Jewish cemetery; specifically, the closed-off section that houses the tombs of pimps and prostitutes. He is paid to do this by wealthy Jews who don't want to be associated with their darker pasts. He's reluctantly assisted by his son, Pato, a young college student with communist leanings. His wife, Lilian, works as a secretary and dotes on their son.

One day their son disappears for seemingly no reason at all. His disappearance takes over all of Lilian's life, as she spends days and days at the Ministry of Special Cases, a bizarre building that's a bureaucratic nightmare, where people are made to wait outside in the sun for hours and days just for a turn to talk to someone who can't help them. Kaddish, less optimistic than his wife, is pretty sure their son is dead.

And I just didn't give a damn about any of it. Aside from the terrible flashbacks of Honduran bureaucracy brought up by the scenes at the Ministry, this whole book just washed over me and left me feeling completely and utterly bored. None of it ever connected; not the characters or their terrible tragedy, not the setting, nothing at all. Which was just surprising to me, because I thought that I'd readily connect to a book that deals with a story that was repeated all through Latin America in the 70s and 80s--my parents lived through this, and still I didn't give a damn what happened to any of these characters!

It's hard for me to remember why all I felt for this book was an overwhelming sense of apathy. I think a big part of it was that the characters didn't feel like real people to me. They were like ghosts, and for all that Englander documents Lilian's misery, it just felt so clinical to me. Lilian and Kaddish felt like they lived in completely different worlds, which I suppose was the point (they never connect to each other), but to me they felt like characters in two completely different stories. I never felt that the two were even remotely connected. Pato is just a sketch of a character, and it was hard to grasp just what the character was like, or why I should care about him.

The writing felt dry and heartless to me. Scenes were disjointed and there didn't seem to be a running thread through the whole thing. I think we were supposed to feel the same sense of confusion and isolation that Lilian felt in her search for her son, but I don't think we were supposed to feel completely outside of it, to the point where you just stop caring about the whole thing.

I don't know if this will make much sense to anyone, but to me, the book felt like a bad Spanish-to-English translation of a better book. It felt as if the words didn't quite fit, as if they would maybe have more of an impact in a different language; as if it had been written by a very dry, very bad translator. The words just didn't fit the story. I really hate that I can't explain it any better than that, but maybe it'll make some sense to someone.

I came into this with high expectations, and they were dashed pretty quickly. I kept expecting the story to pick up, for the writing to get smoother, to start caring about the characters. But that never happened. Though there are scenes of graphic violence and what I guess is supposed to be terrible sadness, I never felt anything but apathetic towards this book. I didn't hate it; I just didn't care.

I guess they can't all be winners. I'm just annoyed that this one wasn't.

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