Across time and desert

David Her­man and Anne Gar­vey ad­mire nov­els that raise and con­front moral ques­tions Din­ner at the Cen­tre of the Earth

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Nathan Eng­lan­der

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

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