Spy-craft and love-craft
Dinner At The Centre Of The Earth NATHAN ENGLANDER Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £14.99
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