NTK’s book review series takes a look at the latest from Nathan Englander, a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Can we escape our foundational choices? How do you fashion an identity when something fundamental to it (your home, your freedom, your consciousness) has been taken away? What do we owe our country? What should you do for love? These are just some of the central questions Nathan Englander tackles in his kaleidoscopic new novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dinner at the Center of the Earth.
Set across Europe and the Middle East, Dinner at the Center of the Earth takes some time finding its groove. In part that’s due to the novel’s attempt to be many different things at once. There are moments when it is a dialogue between a prisoner and his guard, while at other times it’s a spy thriller mixed with a love story, in which our “hero” finds himself on the run with the girl of his dreams.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth swings between locations and time itself, going back and forth between not just the Second Intifada and 2014, but many key moments from Israel’s history. Once the reader gets a grip on the pacing and story, the novel flies. Constantly shifting perspectives, the novel has readers on their toes, if not a little unbalanced. Yet even with all these complications, Englander has time for humor. At one point a character quips, “the biggest challenge at a Jewish spy service is training everyone not to look so guilty.”
The main character of the novel is referred to only as Prisoner Z, trapped in a cell, unknown to the outside world. As the novel unravels how Prisoner Z ended up in such a sorry state, we meet other interconnected characters, most notably Ariel Sharon, referred to exclusively as The General. Being trapped is a through line for the novel, and when we meet The General, he’s in a coma, reviewing his life, both the highlights and the lowlights, in limbo. We see The General as a hero, saving his country during the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War. But we also see Sharon during and after the Qibya massacre, in which dozens of Palestinian women and children lost their lives, and he’s at risk of being disavowed.
While the novel is at times dominated by the Israeli perspective, a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not complete without an detailed understanding of the Palestinian perspective. Englander does this exceptionally well, humanizing both individual Palestinian actors and the people as a whole. After all, the people of Gaza are trapped, too, their tunnels closed by Israel and Egypt, with only outsiders like a charismatic amateur yachtsman named Farid to help them out. Farid escaped Gaza and now works to help his people pierce through their isolation from the outside world from all the way in Berlin.
The ability to see the world from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives is what gives Dinner at the Center of the Earth its optimistic moral center. Both Israelis and Palestinians are faithful to the righteousness of their own cause, but at times, characters can see a way past this most charged of conflicts to a future of peace.
Yet while the novel is optimistic, it is also realistic. The violence, and the historical memory of past violence, keeps both sides addicted to carrying out further attacks in the name of retribution. Englander’s ability to capture the almost pathological nature to ‘get even’ shines.
In one particularly chilling scene, Farid has just lost his terrorist brother in an Israeli strike. In the process, though, there was tragic collateral damage. The two sides get on the phone, with a Mossad spy pleading for patience and rationality. Yet in answer, there is only a desire for revenge:
“After,” Farid says. “Talk to me then. If you’re going to murder our children, you must be prepared to drink from the same cup of poison.”
The ability to end the cycle of retribution is key to any lasting peace, but in the moment, characters, as in real life, can’t restrain themselves. And in the end, everyone is worse off. Until there are people on both sides willing to quit their addiction for vengeance, resolution is impossible. Hopelessness is certain. Nathan Englander’s new novel makes a plea for peace, but if even the characters in his own novel can’t restrain themselves, how can the real-life actors hold themselves back?
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