“More faltering than it is striking” – Dinner at the Centre of the Earth by Nathan Englander

datcotwEnglander’s second novel (fourth book) is something of a genre-bender: a spy novel, a romance, and an absurdist war story all bundled up. There’s nothing wrong with that – we like innovation – but in this case it’s more faltering than it is striking. Between the various sections and plots, there’s something of a gap where the real tension ought to lie; although the thematic stakes are high (Israel, Palestine, the ethics of war and espionage), Englander’s gameplaying with style and tone creates an unfortunate distance between the reader and the characters.

But let’s rewind. (And let’s be upfront: there are spoilers here.) Prisoner Z, an American Jew who had been working as an operative for the Israeli government, has been held unofficially captive for twelve years in Israel’s Negev desert for betraying his bosses to people affiliated with Hamas. His only contact is an unnamed guard, whose mother, Ruthi, is a long-term employee of the General, the commander who’d had Z hunted and locked up in the first place. Z’s situation is pretty bleak: he occupies himself by writing letters to the General, but it’s only when the old man dies that the guard confesses that the General had been comatose for years anyway; nobody know who or where Z is. Z’s not happy. So we get prison-cell scenes (the guard and prisoner are each the closest thing the other has to a friend) interspersed with scenes from Z’s last few days as a free man in Paris (during which he knows they’re coming for him), scenes from Berlin (that turn out, eventually, to be the story of the encounter with Farid, a Palestinian operative, that led to Z’s downfall), and, weirdly, scenes from inside the General’s comatose brain, as he relives various incidents in his military and diplomatic career. The other main character is Shira, the waitress with whom Z falls in love in Paris; needless to say, that does not end well, because – not very surprisingly – she’s actually a spy too. The final section of the book details Shira’s later relationship with a Palestinian mapmaker: at this point nobody’s spying, the political situation is dire, and everything narrows in on one moment: is it possible for these two unlikely lovers to be with one another, even if just for an hour, while the bombs fall above them?

There’s a lot to grapple with, then, and much that ought to be grappled with, too, if we’re looking at Israel/Palestine, and the US involvement in that situation, and Englander definitely doesn’t go light on the politics: the rights and wrongs of the various peoples involved are the text and the subtext of pretty much every encounter in the book. These texts, though, are heavy on the generalities; with a couple of exceptions, where particular military incidents are name-checked and (briefly) argued over, there’s not much actual discussion either of Zionism or of the Palestinian argument against Israeli settlements, or, really, how these things affect the various characters. Okay: some of them live in Israel or Palestine, sure, but they rarely came across as people in whom a reader might invest some emotional energy – rather, they’re ciphers for the political situation: the efficient spy, the wobbly spy, the loyal servant/employee, the ‘following orders’ guy, the sad diplomat… So maybe it’s an allegory? But if it were, we’d probably want a full-on fable, right? Where everyone was called Z (or K) or the General? This nomenclature is a nod to the spy novel, of course, and the idea of the Disappeared, and the erasure of identity and existence, on which Englander’s written eloquently before, but in this case, given that we’ve got significant access to Z’s memories, not only from his career in espionage, but from his childhood and family life, the trick rings a little untrue. The result is that Z comes across as a partial character: the distance between him and the reader feels less like an affect of his political imprisonment and more like a failure on Englander’s part to fully realise him as a particular individual in a particular situation. We get a pretty strong sense of his hunger, panic and lust when he’s on the run, but when he’s locked up – when the mechanics of plot are removed and he’s left in an existential limbo, which really, is a much more interesting novelistic conundrum – he fades out. And that brings me back to the novel’s form: it’s dabbling in allegory (by keeping things vague, by keeping politics a little abstract) and it’s dabbling in realism (by giving us all the details of his love-affair, by setting out the whole Farid interlude in poignant detail – Farid’s sections were, for me, the best parts, and it’s a shame Englander didn’t track him throughout the book) but it doesn’t succeed in either.

The other, related, issue is the women in the text: Englander’s skating on thin ice, with every female here presented as a function of the men in her life: we’ve got Z’s mother (a literal plot device), Ruthi (the guard’s mother, Sharon’s stand-in mother and token Zionist mouthpiece) and Shira, who’s a spy, sure, but primarily a love object (whom Z doesn’t even bother to name, or even to codify: she’s the hot waitress for hundreds of pages, even after she’s moved into his apartment). Even when, at the end, she’s acting as one half of a symbolic joining of the two sides (as she tries to reunite with her mapmaker in the tunnels under Gaza), she’s still, duh, a symbol: you can’t root for Shira, because, like her fellow characters, she doesn’t extend very far beyond her role as a political place-holder.

Any Cop?: I’d love to read something that digs into these exact issues without ducking away either from the political implications of whichever side the character’s on or from the literal central situation of the book (the horror of endless secret imprisonment); I’d maybe like to see something dealing more directly with Sharon in a semi-fictional way, a la HhHH; I’d like to see a bit of gender balance, thanks very much. (My reading list on Israel/Palestine isn’t great: I’d also love to hear recommendations!) Overall: lots of potential here, but equally met by disappointment.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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