Spy-craft and love-craft

Din­ner At The Cen­tre Of The Earth NATHAN ENG­LAN­DER Wei­den­feld and Ni­col­son, £14.99

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

PRIS­ONER Z sits in a cell in the Negev Desert, Is­rael. He has been there for 12 years. The Gen­eral has lain un­con­scious for eight years in a hospi­tal near Tel Aviv. They are both Is­raelis. Pris­oner Z reg­u­larly writes reg­u­larly to the Gen­eral to plead for his re­lease. He does not know his let­ters are fu­tile. The mother of the man who watches over Pris­oner Z at­tends daily to the Gen­eral.

This is the oblique sce­nario pre­sented to us in Nathan Eng­lan­der’s pol­ished, in­tri­cate novel about the Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict (it is also the kind of util­i­tar­ian para­graph Eng­lan­der, to his credit, is in­ca­pable of writ­ing). You might be fooled, as I was for a while, into think­ing there is an ex­tended metaphor con­nect­ing the stale­mate in the Mid­dle East and the fact that Pris­oner Z’s free­dom rests on a man who is co­matose. The no­tion is there (con­flict as a state of “limbo”) but Eng­lan­der is never so ob­tuse as to form his whole novel around the idea.

Nev­er­the­less, it is in the past, not the time­less present, that the story moves. The chap­ters switch be­tween the Gen­eral’s dream-like visions of his mil­i­tary years, Pris­oner Z’s life as an Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer be­fore he is cap­tured by his own se­cu­rity ser­vices, and his time in the field un­der the name Joshua,

mak­ing friends with a wealthy Pales­tinian called Farid.

The Gen­eral is Is­rael’s at­tack dog on the ground in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. He also di­rects mind war­fare – in­ter­cept­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lect­ing data on the Pales­tinian au­thor­i­ties. Joshua’s de­tail is to smug­gle a ship­ment of bugged telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment into Gaza. When he lets his cover slip (“we didn’t start this”), he risks en­dan­ger­ing Is­rael’s sta­tus in the world; we, in turn, re­alise the per­sonal con­nec­tion he has with Farid. Cut to Paris, where Joshua is hid­ing out, para­noid and fear­ful, un­til he falls in love with a wait­ress, who, of course, has no se­crets of her own. There is much more to this novel of spy-craft and love-craft, and af­ter you have fin­ished you won­der how Eng­lan­der man­ages it in 250 pages. Of course, it’s all style. He con­denses his prose so well, with great flu­ency, and the di­a­logue ric­o­chets with joy­ous en­ergy. Here is Joshua talk­ing to the wait­ress about what he did af­ter un­der­min­ing the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment: “’What did you do?’ she asks him. ‘I ac­ti­vated my mother.’ ‘Your mother?’ ‘What else does a Jewish boy do when trou­ble is afoot?’”

As is ev­i­dent, Eng­lan­der is an acute and funny writer. But there is a deep, se­ri­ous­ness un­der­pin­ning all that hap­pens here. The ti­tle refers to a mi­nor thread: au­then­tic, rather than pre-med­i­tated, love. To­wards the end, two mar­ginal play­ers in the fail­ing peace process start to rep­re­sent the hope that peo­ple can still feel gen­uine af­fec­tion for one an­other. It sounds like a story that be­longs in a dif­fer­ent book, un­til you re­alise it is ex­actly what this fine novel is about: peo­ple try­ing to find com­mon ground in a world of po­lit­i­cal land-bar­gain­ing.

Diner At The Cen­tre Of The Earth is an in­tri­cate novel about the Is­raelPales­tine con­flict

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