Book Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth
A riveting novel in which a Jewish American becomes and Israeli spy and then a traitor to his adopted country
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Nov. 3, 2017
During a recent appearance at BookPeople for the publication of this gripping new novel, author Nathan Englander gave a surprisingly short reading but then followed it with a lengthy and quite impassioned monologue about his obsessive desire to move to Israel to be a part of the highly anticipated peace with the Palestinians that was about to blossom in the wake of the Oslo Accords in the mid-Nineties. Englander talked about the euphoria felt by both Israelis and Palestinians as peace became increasingly palpable, if not inevitable. We all know what ultimately happened, how the "peace process" was shattered, first with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, later with the collapse of the Camp David Summit, and ultimately with the Second Intifada. Englander also spoke, sometimes feverishly, about the craziness of living in Israel at that time, when buses were blowing up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and sirens were going off 24 hours a day.
All of this is the unspoken backdrop for Englander's second novel, a riveting tale of a Jewish American who became an Israeli spy and then a traitor to his adopted country. The story jumps back and forth between the time Prisoner Z is being held in a secret Black Site in the Israeli Negev desert and 12 years prior in the buildup to his ultimate transgression and capture. As with so much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is very little black-and-white but rather all manner of shades of gray, even among those to whom a clear-cut perspective would seem to be a given. And in this sense, much is not what it seems. What constitutes loyalty? Or betrayal? Or compromise versus protection, for that matter? At every juncture, the characters struggle with moral imperatives and shifting identities, both internal and external. Even the comatose General, a thinly veiled stand-in for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is not a slam-dunk of unwavering patriotic consistency.
Englander is most highly regarded for his distinguished short story collections, the most recent of which is 2012's Pulitzer Prize finalist, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In this tense narrative, he doesn't waste any time laying out the playing field: "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." And the beat goes on ….
Dinner at the Center of the Earthby Nathan Englander
Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pp., $26.95
Nathan Englander will discuss his new novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth Sun., Nov. 5, 11am, at Capitol Extension Room E2.010.