Nathan Englander won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. This phenomenal story collection also was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. It was my initial exposure to Englander’s work and drove me to read his first novel, another impressive effort, The Ministry of Special Cases about Argentina’s Dirty War and the disappeared children. His new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, similarly deals with a difficult political topic, that being the relentless violence caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the Gaza Strip. In one of the novel’s many memorable scenes, an Israeli prime minister says to his General: “They kill one of ours and you run off like Samson to bring back a hundred heads. The world will not take it. The enemy’s losses are too great.” The General replies: “Then let them stop killing the one. Let them stay on their sides of the borders and I will stay home and sit on my hands.”
While the conflict may be the heart of the novel and its important message, espionage, betrayal and romance drive the plot, focused on the life of a Jewish American boy from Long Island. We first come to know him as Prisoner Z, isolated in an Israeli desert cell and disappeared from existence. The reason for imprisonment takes place 12 years earlier, when he’s working as an Israeli operative for the Mossad in Berlin. He’s an undercover junk electronics dealer with a shipment stuck in Egyptian customs. A Palestinian import-export dealer comes to the rescue. He offers an additional opportunity to move merchandise into Gaza. The Israeli intelligence operation succeeds, but the outcome offends Prisoner Z’s moral conscience, driving him to commit treason. He hides in Paris to save his life and recklessly gets romantically involved with an Italian waitress.
Author Nathan Englander creates captivating reading with the events that take this unusual protagonist from Paris to the Israeli desert. Meanwhile, that General I quoted earlier suffers a stroke and lies comatose in a Tel Aviv hospital. He’s the only one, other than a guard, who knows the whereabouts of Prisoner Z. The parts of the novel devoted to the General drop us into his unconscious thoughts that shuttle dreamlike between military confrontations with the Palestinians, meetings with historic Israeli notables Moshe Dayan and David Ben Gurion, and an incident with his son. The General’s loyal assistant, the mother of the young man guarding Prisoner Z, hovers at her boss’s bedside, honoring his years of great leadership.
This multilayered drama plays out in a colorful and also profound patchwork of chapters stitched together in European and Israeli locations. What results is a fascinating political thriller but also a story with an obvious agenda about the need for peace in Gaza. It’s a worthy agenda but would serve the novel’s remarkable storyline better – and more powerfully – with a lighter, subtle touch. Also, a note of consideration: If you’re unfamiliar with the Gaza conflict, you’ll need to keep Wikipedia handy to fully understand the General’s life and Prisoner Z’s purpose.