Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Nathan Eng­lan­der knows inti­mate­ly the fail­ings and con­tra­dic­tions of human beings. In his new nov­el, things can go bad­ly wrong when coura­geous peo­ple act on their ideals. Yet he loves his failed ide­al­ists, and their abid­ing faith in achiev­ing the unattainable.

His sto­ry cen­ters on a man called Z, who imbibed Zion­ism as a boy at a Jew­ish day school in sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca. Z remem­bers his sec­ond-grade teacher beck­on­ing her class to pic­ture them­selves fly­ing to Israel because the Mes­si­ah has come. Decades lat­er, when peace with Pales­tine seemed immi­nent, Z dropped his grad­u­ate stud­ies to make aliyah to Israel so he wouldn’t miss the epochal event.

We meet Israeli spies whose ded­i­ca­tion to Israeli secu­ri­ty nev­er wavers, and a fierce­ly par­ti­san Pales­tin­ian. There’s a woman with com­plete faith in a man called The Gen­er­al whom she has served for many years. And there’s an unlike­ly cou­ple – Israeli and Pales­tin­ian nego­tia­tors who fall in love.

Most of these char­ac­ters are imag­ined, but some are drawn from life. The Gen­er­al is unmis­tak­ably Ariel Sharon, though he is nev­er named. Z is loose­ly inspired by Pris­on­er X,” who was secret­ly impris­oned in 2010 after giv­ing clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion to Israel’s ene­mies. The com­bi­na­tion of fac­tu­al and fab­ri­cat­ed details cre­ates a sort of coun­ter­fac­tu­al mul­ti­verse where actu­al events have alter­na­tive outcomes.

The action begins in Paris, where Z real­izes he’s being fol­lowed. Z has pro­vid­ed intel­li­gence that led to a bomb­ing in Gaza where the vic­tims includ­ed fam­i­lies with small chil­dren. Then he becomes a trai­tor, dri­ven by his good-heart­ed intent to do what’s right.” He tries to escape his pur­suers, only to dis­cov­er that he was nev­er real­ly the mas­ter of his own fate.

In coun­ter­point to Z’s sto­ry, we over­hear the dreams of the Gen­er­al as he lies in a coma in a hos­pi­tal. He recalls his 1953 raid on the vil­lage of Qibya, where half the casu­al­ties were women and chil­dren, an action that caused con­ster­na­tion and embar­rass­ment in the Israeli gov­ern­ment. Unlike Z, the Gen­er­al went on to fight many more battles.

The third strand is the fable of the star-crossed lovers. Shi­ra, a mem­ber of Ehud Olmert’s nation­al secu­ri­ty team, meets an unnamed map­mak­er work­ing with Mah­moud Abbas dur­ing the 2008 peace talks. They are unit­ed by a desire for peace between their peo­ples, and by their pas­sion­ate, unquench­able desire for each oth­er. Sep­a­rat­ed by phys­i­cal and polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers, they dream of meet­ing for an inti­mate meal in the tun­nels between Gaza and Israel — a din­ner in the cen­ter of the earth,” which is about as like­ly as the wolf dwelling with the lamb.

Eng­lan­der braids these three strands togeth­er into a tight­ly knit, sus­pense­ful sto­ry packed with rich details. His nar­ra­tive voice is as irre­sistible as ever, and he melds espi­onage, fam­i­ly dra­ma, romance, and pol­i­tics in a sur­pris­ing­ly seam­less com­bi­na­tion. A read­er might have been just as hap­py with few­er spy capers, as enter­tain­ing as those are. Quib­bles aside, though, Din­ner is as thought-pro­vok­ing as it is thor­ough­ly enjoy­able. It’s one of the high­lights of the year.

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