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by Dan Grossman
Discussed in this essay: Dinner at the Center of the Earth, a novel by Nathan Englander. Knopf, 2017, 276 pages.
IN PIRKEI AVOT (The Ethics of the Fathers), Hillel sees a skull floating in the water and says, “Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and in the end those that drowned you will be drowned.” The original Hebrew is even pithier: six words are all it takes for Hillel to sum up and repudiate the ethics of vengeance. A version of Hillel’s warning appears on the second page of Nathan Englander’s new novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, when, on the eve of the 2014 Gaza War, the narrator predicts that “both sides will battle for justice, killing each other in the name of those freshly killed, honoring the men who died avenging those who, before them, died avenging.” Hillel lived two millennia ago, but his formulation couldn’t be more apt for today’s Middle East, where cycles of violence spin and spin.
It’s one thing to comment on the cycles of violence; it’s another to base a successful novel on them, which might explain why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has such a high ratio of good reportage to good fiction. Englander, best-known for intimate, off-kilter short stories about religious families in Israel and America, gives it his best try, conjuring up a plot that’s ambitious and a bit fantastical. The book swings between 2002 and 2014 (the years in which the peace process began to fall apart and then shuttered, maybe forever), and features a cast that includes multiple spies, a mother-son duo, two pairs of lovers, and a quasi-vegetative Ariel Sharon.
In one branch of the plot, a young Israeli guard in a Black Site in the Negev watches over Prisoner Z, who in another branch we find in Paris in 2002, evading capture from Mossad and asking himself, “How could a little, religious, Jewish-American boy from Long Island have become an Israeli operative, living undercover in Paris, and now a traitor to his adopted state?” Gullible and easily love-struck, Z enlists an Italian Jewish waitress in his attempt to escape. Back in 2014, the Israeli guard’s mother, Ruthie, watches the hospital bed of her former boss, “The General,” the moniker given for Ariel Sharon. In chapters titled “Limbo,” Sharon hovers between life and death, recalling battle triumphs and political disputes, yet returning again and again to the moment before he discovers that his son has accidentally shot himself with The General’s antique gun.
ONE DOESN’T exactly settle into Dinner at the Center of the Earth. It has forty-seven chapters and only 250 pages, and the experience of its jostling motion goes a long way to determining one’s overall opinion. At its most effective, this flicker through time and space gives the experience of a fugue, allowing us to form connections between The General’s state of limbo and Prisoner Z’s secret detention, and the way that both end up in moral limbo on the Palestinian question, with Sharon evacuating the settlements in Gaza and Prisoner Z, the turncoat, caught “in a bind trying to fix the world.” Likewise, we hear the echoes between the old-school Ruthie and her cynical yet well-meaning son, both of them babysitters for men who only vaguely still exist yet come to dominate their worlds.
At its least effective, Englander’s book feels like a network TV show, with the scenes switching every three minutes to preempt the viewer’s boredom. Dinner at the Center of the Earth is never boring, yet while its compact, fast-paced prose keeps the action flowing, it rarely lingers for long enough to give its characters depth. For instance, over the course of just a few pages, a Palestinian character named Farid remembers his escape from Gaza, his poverty in Berlin, his success as a businessman, and his crash in the tech bubble. Is it any wonder that Farid remains sketchy, and that his shocking deeds later in the novel register as a plot twist rather than a devastation?
Another challenge is that Englander has to quickly loft up scenes from Ariel Sharon’s past. We peep into a room, scantily described, in which David Ben Gurion rants at The General like a tough guy in a gangster flick, and “Peres, in his fancy French suit, twists uncomfortably in his chair.” That’s Shimon Peres, of course. It’s a bold move to envision the dream states of a figure as notorious as Sharon, and at times the surrealism is funny, but the translation across language and time isn’t convincing. It isn’t really meant to be convincing, as the book hovers in its own limbo between realism and allegorical fable. And yet, given the scale of project, the thinness of detail feels like a missed opportunity.
Partly it feels this way because the finest passages in Dinner at the Center of the Earth are when Englander pauses and allows his characters to look back, and allows himself to write with the fineness of detail that characterizes his best short stories. In one sharp, imaginative passage, Prisoner Z compares his stir-craziness to the mold on the walls of his first Jerusalem apartment:
When the rainy season started, the apartment walls would first turn very cold, and then very damp, and eventually, battered and battered by the rain and the wind, they would bead up with moisture, never drying, as wet inside as out. It would get so bad, you could run your finger along them and scoop up the water.
At each spot where a droplet formed, a little black flower of mold would eventually bloom, and, as the winter dragged on, they’d open out, spreading and connecting up, until, by the middle of the season, the whole of those walls had turned black.
In another telling moment, Z, in Paris, seeks out an origin for his identity crisis and remembers the time as a boy that he passed a group of anti-Semitic bullies:
With a practiced motion, as if he’d done it a million times before, his arm swings up, and the hand — the hand with which Z now covers his own mouth — slides up across his head, as if smoothening out his hair. In one perfect action, the yarmulke is gone, palmed, and slipped into the pocket, where it’s swapped out for the chocolate. Suddenly, like that, Z is as Gentile as them. He feels it, because he has become it.
An identity that can change as fast as headgear, well, no wonder Z gets so mixed up. The yarmulke-swipe, which Englander depicts as a sort of magic trick, doubles as a metaphor for assimilation and for spying: now a Jew, now a Gentile; now an Israeli spy, now a traitor. If it’s far-fetched that a naïve klutz like Z could swing a job with Mossad, then his political agony feels both familiar and inevitable. Being a Jew who sympathizes with Israel can make you feel like a spy, and turning against it can make you feel like a double agent. You are thrust, a la Sharon and Prisoner Z, into a moral limbo from which you are unlikely to emerge fully coherent. One form of madness, you might say, is thinking too hard about the Middle East. Although American Jews have the choice to escape this thought-madness, and although for too long American Jewish writers have done just that, Englander refuses to look away, and this not-looking-away is the source of his most impassioned writing. Yet this agony, the emotional core of the book, gets clipped by the plot’s relentless back-and-forthing.
To my mind, Englander’s most underrated short story is also his most personal, “In This Way We Are Wise,” from the collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It begins with a character much like Z sitting in a Jerusalem café, scared out of mind after a bomb goes off down the street. Little else happens in the story — he visits his Israeli girlfriend, he calls his mom — but the live wire of detail sends it onto the skin: the bomb blasts as “wild and lost” birds; post-bombing sex “striving for permanence, laboring for a union that won’t come undone.” This private chaos might be less flashy than the high-flown, allegorical spy games of Dinner at the Center of the Earth, it won’t be made into a movie, but it has the texture of deeply felt experience, the urgency of life as lived.
The Great Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Novel may someday arrive, but it will certainly tarry. In the meantime, we should stand on one foot and recite Hillel’s maxim.
Dan Grossman lives and writes in New York. He last appeared here with a short story, “The Rabbi and the Shark.”