The broad brush of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not an option in Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.” Instead, Englander, the author of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank,” locates transitory moments of peace and love for his characters in inaccessible places removed from the two nations’ interminable warfare.
Englander uses the genre of a spy novel to probe and needle the never-ending conflict. As he has done in the past, Englander offers a story — crosshatching chronology and plot lines — that reads like a fable. Here is a bedtime tale for grownups tired of the same old talking points.
Prisoner X is serving something worse than a life sentence. Worse because his prison is a black site in Israel and because the government erased his identity and has forgotten about his existence. An idealistic American immigrant who came to Israel drawn by the hope of the peacemaking of the early 1990s, X joined the Mossad to fulfill the Zionist dream.
But by 2002, hopes for peace are in tatters. The second intifada has led to the most deadly violence yet between Israel and the Palestinians. When an undercover operation in which X has played a role shatters his belief that Israel wants peace, he turns against Israel to, he hopes, save it from itself. Just how this renegade spy is captured and shunted into his limbo is the centerpiece of the book. These scenes are as rich and sexy as they are tragic.
X’s only companion is his taciturn, dope-smoking guard. The two men play backgammon to pass a dozen years. Over time, a kind of love develops between them — the guard dispenses sedatives to quell X’s fears of oblivion; he brings him French fries — until finally the guard bestows on X a gift of true kindness.
Caught in his own limbo is the General — a legendary figure stuck in a time loop. War hero, errant son, murderer, grandfather, bulldozer, indispensable king of Israel — the General sounds as much like David the beloved one as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The General watches from the ground as Israeli-manned Mirage fighters head south to the Suez Canal. It’s 1967, “the Sinai ours up to the edge of the canal,” Englander writes. “Suddenly there is a country big enough to justify a flight to get from one place to another. A country whose perimeter can’t be patrolled on foot between breakfast and lunch.”
It’s 1973. The General ponders the Egyptian’s surprise crossing of that same canal. “How they sneaked up without sneaking — with the government watching every move.”
An enemy blast throws the General into the air, where he remains.
“He is aware that he is taking too long to land, and the General laughs at himself. Such a heavy man, what a mighty explosion it must have been to throw him this high. Always on duty, the General cannot resist taking advantage of vantage. To be able to peer down at the war, to see the battlefield laid out. It’s an opportunity not to be lost.”
As his time in this limbo grows short, the General is on the Temple Mount, where his presence once provided the pretext for the second intifada, and where he now receives the love and adulation always denied him.
Last, there is Shira, a former Israeli spy, and her Palestinian lover, the mapmaker. They met in 2008, when the two peoples came as close as they ever have to an agreement. Englander describes the scene as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, successor to the stroke-felled General, a lame duck and “the least prime-ministerial person” Shira’s ever seen, takes out his own pen for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to sign the agreement.
“Abbas looked up. He did not take the pen. It was her mapmaker who reached and took it. Her mapmaker who uncapped it and held it out to his leader. He held it out for Abu Mazen, seated in front of the map of their nation. He offered it, with so much dignity, Shira thought, to the man who would not sign.”
Now it is 2014 — not even history yet — and war has broken out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, where the mapmaker has been exiled for arguing that the Palestinians should make peace. As the book ends, he and Shira descend into their own limbo, the only place left where they can meet as individuals, as lovers.
Of all the characters found between the covers of this book — including Yasser Arafat, who has a late-night meal with the General — the least sympathetic is X. In this world of determined, desperate, ruthless Israelis and Palestinians who are playing to win, the American Jew is weak, stumbling, in over his head. Englander, an American Jew who has lived in Israel, seems to be pointing to the fruitless naiveté of Americans who think that they can “can-do” away Israel’s problems.
With positions hardened and so many bent on zero-summing away the other side, it takes a fable to restore the humanity, the humor and the surprise to the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” provides food for thought about this still unsolved conflict.
Dinner with Englander
Nathan Englander will speak about “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” at Shabbat dinner on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. His appearance is part of the Bender Jewish Community Center’s Lessans Family Literary Festival, Nov. 2-5.
Other events are:
Off-Limits: An Adventurous Evening with Jennifer Weiner, Nov. 2, 7 p.m.
Book Club Brunch with Georgia Hunter, Nov. 3, 10:30 a.m.
An Evening with Story District | Not Kosher: True Stories of Breaking Rules and Wildly Inappropriate Behavior, Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Storytelling through Art: A Papercutting Workshop with Adi Shani, Nov. 5, 10 a.m.
Every Summer Has A Story, The Story Continues: A Camp Program, Nov. 5, 10 a.m.
Sunday Fiction Luncheon featuring Sana Krasikov, Nov. 5, 1 p.m.
Closing Night with Abigail Pogrebin in Conversation with David Gregory, Nov. 5, 7 p.m.
Events are at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. For information and tickets, go to benderjccgw.org.