Sunday, September 3, 2017
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander
Modern day Israel can sometimes feel like a recent bruise. It can hurt to brush up against it. Occasionally someone with experience in the region writes a new melody that is both beautiful and plaintive, and perhaps the saddest sound ever heard, a sound from the other side of a wall.
Englander’s new novel might be that new music, filled with regret for the wasted time and wasted lives, for what could have been, and what has not come to be. He points out that the time to settle the state issues have come many times, and each time something more dangerous, deadly, and self-defeating was chosen. What is there to lose now? How can “even-ing the score” help in any way? Haven’t we been here before all the deaths?
The novel describes a twelve year period beginning in 2002, a year of enormous instability and fear throughout the Middle East, on every side a battle. Spies were everywhere, and some were looking not just for weaknesses but for opportunities. What Englander reminds us again and again in this novel is how close the Palestinians and Israelis are, how well they have studied each other. Their hate is more like love.
During eight years of that twelve year-period 2002-2014, ‘the General’ Ariel Sharon lie in his bed, in a waking coma, able to hear, apparently, though perhaps unable to make sense of what he heard. While the General remained alive, hope for peace remained among his supporters because Sharon alone was willing to withdraw from Gaza. Though Sharon led some of the most decisive attacks against Palestinian aggression anywhere, he understood that he was responsible for Israel’s future, which meant peace. Military ends had not brought the stability he’d sought. Every year he lay in bed, the hope dimmed further.
The story’s other individuals are connected in some way with few degrees of separation. Most appear to have been spies at some time or other, so the tension starts strong and never really abates. One is continually aware when a conversation is intended to communicate far more than casual niceties about work, weather, or sports. In Berlin, a Palestinian operative gathers the money and resources he will need to make a difference. Approached by an American Jew working for Mossad, a connection is made.
In counterpoint to Sharon’s story and that of the American spy, is another story told some years later of a man, Prisoner Z, being held in an Israeli dark site in the desert, a disappeared man we initially assume to be Palestinian. But no, he is one of their own, which means a crime of treason. He's held twelve years already, by the same jailor. They have become friends, these two lonely disappeared men, and more perhaps. Brothers.
Englander’s characters are believable—they are not better nor more evil than anyone else in the world. That is his point, after all. It may be illegal, treasonous, monstrous to suggest that Israelis would be safer if they had less protection, less surety, but that may be what it will take to get where they claim they want to go. The Palestinians are going to want parity, so if parity is not what one is willing to give, then one will always be looking over one’s shoulder at what could have been.
A beautiful small novel that feels European, filled with hope and despair, possibility and its opposite. And love.
I listened to the Penguin Random House audio production of his novel read by Mark Bramhall. Bramhall does an Oscar-worthy Jewish mother talking on the telephone to her son, the spy. It can’t be beat, his impersonation. Listening is a fine way to enjoy this novel (7 hours). Below please find an NPR Scott Simon interview with Nathan Englander about this latest novel:
You can buy this book here: Tweet