Dinner At The Center of the Earth
by Nathan Englander
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524732738
By Noah Sanders
Near the end of Nathan Englander’s fantastic new novel, Dinner At The Center of The Earth, when the varied threads of his story are colliding, erupting and unraveling, the author writes, “The paths of life, they are infinitely weaving.” Dinner At The Center of the Earth is a story that ricochets through a decade of the historic, ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but zooms down to a basic, near microscopic level in the context of history: the simple relationships between two people. Though set amongst a truly tragic scenario, the book can only be called historical fiction in the loosest terms. This is a story about the power of a relationship, the ripple effect that the connection between two people—real or imagined—can send sprawling into the world, forcing history’s hand as it does. Englander is able to show not only the shifting morals inherent to a conflict between two opposing forces through his small cast of characters, but to show, that under the umbrella of history, are the teeming masses of individuals, all of them seeking a way forward, whatever that may be.
By drawing the focus away from the major events of the Israeli/Palestine conflict Englander is making the point that as much as history is pushed along by major battles, assassinations, and moments that we can fill textbooks about, at its heart are small moments, minuscule events and the connections between two people. It is these events, buried beneath the slow spreading sand dunes of history, that fade from sight, but it is these experiences that drive, well, everything. Englander’s books focuses on a selection of characters whose lives, and actions, run parallel to the greater events of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians over the last decade. A former spy sits in a black site cell; a Palestinian businessman teaches a man to sail; a guard eats dinner with his mother; a woman watches the leader of Israel slip slowly into the grips of death—each of them has their beliefs, each of them has taken sides and their actions have effected the greater political picture in small, and enormous ways.
Though the cowl of history always rests on Englander’s characters, there are large stretches—Z (the spy) and his romancing of an Italian waitress, the relationship between Ruthi and her son (the unnamed security guard)—where the author allows history to take a back seat, and the pure connection between two people rises to the surface. The relationship between Farid (the Palestinian/German businessman) and Joshua (his billionaire sailing student) is based entirely on two men in need of companionship, men tossed about by war and economics who have, by chance, landed at a small boating club in Berlin. Nothing is ever as it seems in Dinner At The Center of The Earth, and Englander never makes it seem any different: these are spies and politicians and the assorted rabble that gets drawn to them.
But Englander’s great gift, and perhaps the great message of this book, is his ability to make you believe, against all better judgement, that these relationships are real. That the emotion simmering at the heart of each—love, loss, want, lust—isn’t the product of espionage, but the product of natural human need. That even though the reader knows, absolutely believes, these character will betray each other in the name of greater causes, Englander convinces that their emotional connections are real. In wanting these basic human emotional satisfactions, the characters of Dinner lose sight of the concrete objectives of spy-craft and politics, economics and reality. Human need as great and blinding, and often times the producer of terrible consequences. As Farid says to Joshua as their friendships comes to a spectacular, history-altering end, “I am calling so that you understand, what has already been put into motion did not have to happen. What already cannot be stopped was started because of this, because of you.”
Dinner At The Center of The Earth is a book full of betrayals, and paranoia, all of it derived from our most essential, most necessary aspect of being human: the relationship. This isn’t a dour book though, instead in the annals of history, Englander is able to show that amongst the horrific arc of time, relationships emerge, small and beautiful, even between two world powers whose knives have laid at each other’s throats for nearly a century. The titular “dinner” Englander invokes is one between a former Israeli spy and a Palestinian politician, in love separated by politics and war, hopeless symbols of the conflict. “Our issues,” the politician says, “They’re insurmountable, far beyond our hope.” Englander allows their narrative threads to touch once more though in the dust-soaked tunnels beneath Israel, bombs exploding above them, candles flickering. It is a small moment, as all of them in the book are, with enormous implications. As if Englander in dissecting the relationships at the heart of any conflict has found not only the cause, but the cure.