The Ministry of Special Cases and the Argentine University
The Argentine Dirty War.
Worn plaques on the streets labeling the cushy homes of government-sanctioned torturers. Nunca Más
, a book about remembering atrocities. Thursdays at 7pm, when the Madres de Plaza de Mayo march to this day to find lost children.
These are all images that I associate with the Argentine Dirty War. But I do not call it the Dirty War, because, as one of my teachers last year told me, it cannot be called 'war' if only one side has all the weapons and power. Instead, will refer to this time period as la dictadura. During the 1970's, a military junta ruled Argentina with an iron fist, and, in the name of trying to stamp out 'subversive activity', over 30,000 people were 'disappeared' from the streets, never to be seen again. Many of the other books on the list appear to be fictional or real stories addressing the Argentina, focusing on idiosyncrasies such as tango or mate culture, but The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander addresses a darker part of the history of this beautiful country.
My decision to read The Ministry of Special Cases
by Nathan Englander was far from random. Written in 2007, Englander, a U.S. citizen, delves into the complicated topic of history, memory, and justice by addressing the Argentine Dirty War from the perspective of a Jewish gravedigger, Kaddish Poznan, who lives with his wife and son. As the novel progresses, Kaddish's only son, Pato, is disappeared by the government, and his parents struggle with the aftermath. The book details a story that is both terrifying and sad, but it is part of a real history, and a story that has personal relevance to me.
My father left Argentina for good in the 1990's, during the rule of Menem. I grew up on stories of the Argentina of his childhood, images of beautiful parks and delicious food and snotty aunts, not really understanding with my child's mind that my dad was editing out the darker parts of his life during an extremely violent period of his home country. It was only when I grew older that I became able to discuss what my dad went through, and even to this day I think he hesitates to discuss everything with me. My choice to read The Ministry of Special Cases
was an attempt to understand a little of what my family went through, although the words on the page cannot compare to the experience in the flesh.
My father's experience with the Argentine university system has always struck a chord with me, and now, as I study abroad at a university in Buenos Aires, it seems that I am repeating his history in a way, hopefully with better results. My father started at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, commonly known as la UBA
, for anthropology, but the junta shut down the school before he could complete his four years. This happened to several more schools that he attended: he would attend for a few months before the school was closed. Eventually, my father dropped out completely. The dictators cracked down on the students like the fictional Pato, whose vibrancy and intellectual curiosity made them the first dissenters.
I am given a glimpse into the life of my father as I read Englander's book. "The university is the worst place to be right now. You think I don't get it, but I do. The men who run this country are more like me than like Pato." Lillian laughed out loud. "Seriously," Kaddish said. "Angry intellectual types make them nervous. I know it, because I feel the same way. If they're as afraid of the boy as I am." (Pg. 107)
Today, Argentina's universities are some of the best in South America, offering free education to anyone with a desire to learn. Many students are politically active, and all of them have opinions; they are fierce defenders of President Christina or intense opponents, but they are vocal with their opinions. This week, as the students flood back into the classrooms after a lengthy summer vacation, I think back to those students before them, and the youth that live in the aftermath of la dictadura.