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Dinner at the Center of the Earth


Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Nathan Englander’s second novel, DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, is a spare, elegiac portrait of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It's a story that artfully captures the weariness of people who have known nothing but that conflict --- always at least cold, too often hot --- and find themselves trapped in a cul-de-sac of enmity. As Englander put it in a recent New York Times interview, the novel comes out of his "personal optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism for Israel-Palestine," his "true heartbreak over the peace process falling apart."

Much of the pleasure of the book lies in the unfolding of a plot that’s fairly complex for a brief work, and so there's a danger of giving too much away. Spanning the period that included the Second Intifada and the 2014 Gaza War, the novel revolves around a “disappeared, nameless American” known only as “Prisoner Z.” He's a former Israeli spy held in isolation at a black site in the Negev Desert after he commits what he sees as a “crime of political passion, undertaken in a desperate last-ditch fugue state and driven by his good-hearted intent to do what’s right” that the Israeli government regards as treason.

"...a spare, elegiac portrait of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It's a story that artfully captures the weariness of people who have known nothing but that conflict...and find themselves trapped in a cul-de-sac of enmity."

Away from Z's prison cell, Englander patiently unpacks the prisoner's story in brief alternating sections set in Paris and Berlin in 2002 and on both sides of the border between Israel and Gaza in 2014. In Paris, Z --- in hiding after his act of betrayal --- falls in love with an Italian-Jewish waitress at a cafe he frequents. As with much of the rest of the book, what appears on the surface as their straightforward and appealing love affair conceals layers of darkness and intrigue.

There’s one final setting, the novel’s most ambitious and intriguing. It takes place inside the mind of a man known only as “the General,” but whose recollections make it clear he’s a proxy for the late Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. In 2006, Sharon suffered a massive stroke, one that he survived without regaining consciousness for another eight years. In sections entitled “2014 Hospital (near Tel Aviv)” and “2014, Limbo,” the comatose General (who's responsible for Z's solitary confinement) recalls events from his long and controversial military and political career. His was a paradoxical life, stained by allegations of genocide against Palestinians, but at the same time included the controversial decision to dismantle Israeli settlements and abandon the Gaza Strip in 2005, during his tenure as the head of a centrist coalition. Suspending judgment, Englander presents the General/Sharon in all this complexity.

At times, the novel’s somber tone is leavened with flashes of dry wit. In a rapid-fire dialogue between Z and his American mother, who’s demanding her son leave Israel for his own safety, he reminds her of her financial support and activism for the country. “You love Israel,” he says. “I do,” she replies. “But not for my son.” And in a conversation between Z and his girlfriend, he recounts the comment of his countersurveillance instructor, who complained that “The biggest challenge at a Jewish spy service is training everyone not to look so guilty. A less nervous nation might, as the anti-Semites believe, truly take over the world.”

Englander doesn't reveal the meaning of the novel's title until close to its conclusion, but when he does, it's a lovely metaphor for what it might take to bring that conflict to an end. But in an imagined exchange between Sharon and Yasser Arafat over a hastily prepared meal in Sharon’s home, Englander crystallizes the seeming impossibility of any peace negotiation:

“Give us that,” Arafat said. “We should not have to ask for what’s ours.”

“If it were yours already,” the General had said, “you would not have to come asking at my door.”

Englander offers little reason to hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict, however much that prospect appeals to each successive American presidential administration. “There’s no knowing how and when, or even if, the bloodshed will ever end,” a nameless narrator muses as the novel opens. “Only that both sides will battle for justice, killing each other in the name of those freshly killed, honoring the men who died avenging those who, before them, died avenging.” Englander succeeds here in moving the locus of the conflict from the realm of geopolitics to the domain of the human heart. In either space, it’s a profound and enduring tragedy.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 29, 2017

Dinner at the Center of the Earth
by Nathan Englander