Englander, Nathan. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”, Knopf, 2017.
A Secret Prisoner
Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is a political thriller that takes place during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focuses on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. We have quite a cast of characters that include a prisoner in a secret cell, the guard who has watched over him a dozen years, an American waitress in Paris, a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman and The General, Israel’s most controversial leader, the General, who lies dying in a hospital and who is the only man who knows of the prisoner’s existence. There is another main character in the nation of Israel, a country driven by conflict. Englander looks at the “anguished, violent” rift between Israelis and Palestinians as he dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities haunting both sides. We look at the questions of who is right and who is wrong… and who is the guard and who is truly the prisoner?
We are taken deep into the Arab – Israeli conflict via a series of contacts between members representing each side. We meet the General who has led attacks and wars against Arabs living in territory next to Israel. He is merciless, brilliant and has little if any guilt about how the effects his actions protect the nation or not. He is loved by the people but his life is coming to end as he is facing his mortality in a hospital. and we meet him as he lays dying in an Israeli hospital. Then there is the man that the General imprisoned years ago in a secret cell. No one except the General and the man guarding the prisoner knows where he is kept and why he is there.
We next meet Z who has been having a love affair with a waitress who is actually a wealthy woman who is only working to keep her identity in these troubling times. She claims to take Z to meet her father in Italy but it in reality she takes him prisoner since he is an enemy of her country. There is also a love affair going on between an Israeli woman on a kibbutz and a Palestinian who is constantly mapping out Israeli territory in order to present his maps to his Hamas colleagues to use in an attack against the Jewish state. The two want to experience a dinner date but find that the only place they can have it would be in one of the tunnels dug by Hamas that are to be used to invade Israeli at the proper time.
These interactions are meant to illustrate the conflict between Israel and it’s neighbors and even though both sides have a point and fight for it, the idea that each refuses to recognize the other side is yet another point that could lead to peace if each side was willing to bend a bit. Englander shares his belief that the conflict that has gone on for years could be settled if both sides listened to the other and tried to get a solution based on discussion and finding a common ground.
Englander has his novel told from various different places and by different characters. Z’s story began back in Paris in 2002 where he went into hiding knowing that he was being pursued. He rarely leaves his room and when he does he goes to a Jewish restaurant across town where he meets a nameless woman who we get to now as the waitress.
At the same time, the general who is responsible for Z being captured and imprisoned is living in a world between life and death and he is unable to do anything but lie there and die. What then happens you will only learn by reading the book since I am not about to share any more of the plot. I can promise you that you will have quite a fascinating read.