Across time and desert
David Herman and Anne Garvey admire novels that raise and confront moral questions Dinner at the Centre of the Earth
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99 Reviewed by David Herman
ALONG WITH Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander belongs to that extraordinary generation of JewishAmerican writers who exploded on to the scene almost 20 years ago. All three have published novels in the past year, all involving Israel, of which Englander’s compelling Dinner at the Centre of the Earth is the best.
It is made up of short, punchy chapters that move back and forward between 1973 and 2014. Mixing fictional and historical characters, they are set in Paris, Berlin, Italy and, above all, Israel — and within Israel move from a hospital near Tel Aviv to Ben-Gurion’s desert home, from General Sharon’s kitchen to a Black Site in the Negev Desert. We meet Israeli and Palestinian statesmen and generals: Dayan, Olmert and Abbas. In one extraordinary moment, “the General” (clearly based on Sharon) asks his assistant to prepare dinner for a surprise guest and then leads in Arafat.
It is a sort of spy novel, a new venture for Englander, who has always been one of the most eclectic and ambitious of the new wave of Jewish-American writers. The key characters here are an unlikely assortment: “the General”, in an eight-year coma, whom we see at crucial moments of his career going back to the wars of 1967 and 1973; an Israeli spy who meets a beautiful young waitress in Paris; Joshua, a super-rich Canadian entrepreneur based in Berlin; Farid, a Palestinian money man; and, most mysterious of all, “Z”, a prisoner who has been locked up and tortured in a secret location, stripped of his identity. Only “the General” knows where he is and if he will ever be released.
The novel’s flashbacks mostly occur between 2002 and 2014. Sometimes, the narrative moves with incredible speed, revelations coming thick and fast. There are also scenes of remarkable stillness: Sharon listening to a beautiful Arab record before he orders the destruction of a village; Ben-Gurion walking with the young Sharon in the desert, discussing the moral limits of violence.
Englander raises morally complex questions. What are the alternatives to the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians? Can state violence or terrorism be legitimate? “The General” is a beast, the embodiment of revenge unleashed on Palestinian villages in response to atrocities against Israeli families, and yet he is drawn sympathetically. A key word is “trust”. Can Palestinians and Israelis ever trust each other; can lovers trust each other? How do you know if someone is who they say they are?
A dark, profound meditation on the state of Israel and also a gripping thriller, full of twists and moral ambiguity, it is an absolute joy to read.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer Nathan Englander: mysterious events amid a profound reflection on Israel Knopp-Kilpert’s