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.