A few months back I heard Nathan Englander talk about his new Israel novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, and concluded that it was not very serious as a political commentary. Then a friend wrote to tell me the novel is subversive.
It’s incredibly anti-Israel while also being sympathetic. But the most sympathetic characters are Palestinian. In the end, Englander lays all the blame on American Jewish Zionist propaganda. It’s a quick read. Much of interest for you in it, I think.
So I got Englander’s novel and read it. Englander is an entertainer of a high order. He’s a story-teller. He means to keep his reader enraptured by a group of characters whose fates will all be decided in the last pages, and this he does very well. The writing is elegant and unpretentious. No plot turn is overtold, every character is under-sketched. I’m extremely sensitive when it comes to clattering words; and this book was all pleasure to read.
As for the book’s politics, Israel/Palestine is the ultimate field for any Jewish or Palestinian artist, Englander knows this, and he aimed to say something– though, not a lot. The best part of the book is the spiritual portrait of the Israelis. It’s not a happy country. Everyone is narcotized or unconscious or belligerent. The book’s central character is a young American who was brainwashed by his beautiful Hebrew school teacher to believe Israel was his birthright, and so he made aliyah, and became a black-ops warrior, only to find that Israel was committing indiscriminate massacres. So he turns against his adopted country, and pays a terrible price for it: imprisonment and complete invisibility. There is one sympathetic Israeli character actually. Shira is a patriot and in love with a Palestinian negotiator who works for Mahmoud Abbas, and is willing to pay any price to see him.
Abbas flits through the book. So do Shimon Peres, David Ben-Gurion, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat. The central historical actor is the late Ariel Sharon, a big and wildly-imagined character, dark and remorseful and riddled with violence, including responsibility for his son’s death in 1967 while playing with a rifle at the house, and for scores of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953. “He is more golem than man,” Sharon brags on himself. “The General cannot be stopped when he is out avenging Jews.”
And Sharon is forgiven. “A murderer, Mother. A butcher,” an Israeli man says to his mother, Sharon’s nurse. She responds:
“I know what he did in the past, same as you. But that same General saved this country from certain destruction many times.”
“No one disputes that.”
That is the nihilistic Israeli perspective of the book. These people have not figured anything out but how to kill Arabs and control their own people. The Palestinian characters are thin.
As for the imagined politics of the tale, the understanding to which Englander would take us to redeem us from this grinding conflict– he can’t really do it. No, it’s the same old two-state solution, with land swaps and that (hideous) tunnel to connect Gaza and the West Bank; and of all people former U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman emerges as the book’s political star. “She was a stern and clearheaded negotiator, all business, and also strong enough not to fear, in quiet intermissions, being kind.” Englander thanks Sherman in his acknowledgements, and his salute is more a payoff to her than the reader. Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a great pageturner, but I wanted more.