Dinner at the Center of the Earth
Knopf-Penguin Random House 2017
In his spy thriller, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” Nathan Englander takes us into the tragic and heartbreaking conflict between Israel and Palestine. His characters are sorrowful, caught in a drama they can’t escape, always yearning for peace.
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“. . . a most worthwhile novel by a gifted writer.”
Englander structures his narrative around an actual event. In 2002, Israel’s military bombed a five-story building, killing women and children in retaliation for a Palestinian terrorist slaying of six Israelis.
The character-driven novel begins with a scene inside of a prison where an Israeli spy has been confined in isolation for more than ten years, accused of treason. In flashbacks, we discover the spy, referred as “Z,” is an American Jew recruited by Israel to assist in the delivery of used computers into Israel. Z is guilt-ridden when he discovers he was complicit in the bombing of a building that also killed innocents.
We follow Z in his desperate love desire for a waitress who may also be a spy and his friendship with Farid, a Palestinian refugee, who unwittingly contributes to the bombing of the building. Although in a coma, through flashbacks we gain insight into the military thinking of an Israeli prime minister and former general.
Englander captures the psychological conflicts of those caught in a war they want to avoid, tangled in a web they can’t escape. The characters are conflicted, and want a normal life, where they can simply have dinner with someone they love.
Englander moves the reader through the black market where arms are transferred, and into technology, where old computers can be easily retrofitted for the spy war. He also notes how open borders in the European Union facilitate not only the easy flow of information and people, but also weapons.
Throughout the complicated novel are embedded clues, yet as a reader when a character’s true identity is revealed, one still is taken aback. To better understand the character’s ordeal, as a reader I was also prompted to revisit the conflict dating back to1948 when Palestinians were displaced.
Englander’s compelling and vivid prose gives us “sirens blaring” and “missiles screaming,” as “two nations are ramping up to the inevitable war.” It’s a most worthwhile novel by a gifted writer.
Review by Kate Padilla