Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a guilty pleasure — guilty because you wonder throughout if a book highlighting the endless cycles of trespass and vengeance that define the modern state of Israel should be quite so much fun ... Just when you think you’ve been swept into a political thriller with all the headlong energy of the Jason Bourne franchise or a romance viewed through a Vaseline-coated lens, Englander broadens the perspective and you’re back among the real and present depredations of history. Such radical shifts in mood and tone allow him the latitude to do what he’s always done best, in story after indelible story: depict individuals in their quixotic attempts to hang onto conscience, identity and hope while history tries to pry loose their tenuous grasp ... The closest concept the Jews have to limbo is Sheol, a place existing in a purgatorial realm between the poles of paradise and hell — much like, as some might say, the state of Israel itself. Each character in the novel embodies those extremes, oscillating between them, sometimes like a metronome, sometimes like a ticking time bomb ... While parallel lives might have to wait for infinity to converge, opposing narratives may be resolved in stories. And stories about the Promised Land, as this bold, compassionate, genre-hopping novel reminds us, have always traded in impossibility.
Nathan Englander is a fabulist: That’s the first thing to keep in mind. Even when he’s trafficking in the naturalistic he aspires to the lesson of the parable ... One of the exhilarating aspects of Dinner at the Center of the Earth is its expansive sense of space and time ... The decision to base a character on such a specific historical personality is a challenging one, particularly for those who remember Sharon as '[a] murderer, … a butcher,' the architect of massacres in Qibya and Beirut. Englander, however, sidesteps history — or blurs its boundaries — by never referring to the character as anything but the General, rendering him instead as an archetype. The same is true of Prisoner Z, who also goes unnamed throughout the novel, as well as a double agent known mostly as the Waitress, although she is more fully identified toward the end of the book. The effect is to heighten events, to transcend history in favor of a more allegorical realm ... If this feels a little forced in places, well, that too is in the nature of the fable, which is a story in the service of a moral, after all. This has been Englander’s intent from the beginning, and with this novel he articulates and expands on such a sensibility, framing history as both an act and a failure of the imagination, which is to say, in inherently, and inescapably, human terms.
...a moving, if sentimental, story of espionage, disappointed idealism and love across borders ... A twisty tale of spycraft and false allegiances unfolds, but what stands out is Mr. Englander’s insistence on finding romance amid the violence and deception. Spies fall in love with counterspies, Israelis with Palestinians, Prisoner Z with his guard. During the aborted peace process, the General strikes up a warm rapport with Yasser Arafat. The ageless struggle between Jews and Arabs comes to resemble a desperate lover’s embrace. But some of Mr. Englander’s most fervent devotionals are to the land itself, with its flowering deserts, 'the waterfalls and Nubian sandstone, the great dusty mountains and their spectacular views.' That ingrained attachment—and the conflicts it causes—continues to pull Jewish writers from the known world of America to this maddeningly unsolvable puzzle of a nation.
With his second novel, Dinner at the Centre of the Earth, he has chosen the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his subject, and has made a stylistic departure. This is a literary spy thriller … With touches of magical realism and seams of absurdist romp, this is partly a political thriller, partly a howl of grief for the collapse of the peace process, and partly an allegorical romance — though this last, in particular, is introduced too late for real integration into the novel as a whole, at a point at which the reader’s attention, and heart, is already fully committed elsewhere. Not for the shifts in perspective but for the sudden shifts in tone, I found myself reading it as another short-story collection. While it’s not the novel I expected, seen in that light Englander is as wise and funny and original and moving as ever.
Generally, there are two ways people write about Israel-Palestine conflict: to take a side, or to take no side. Englander's brilliance is in showing that sides, like the two states, are constantly shifting. Z's effort to level the scales only makes him realize, to his surprise, both his altruism and his betrayal have killed innocent children ... Z's story comes to an end at a glorious and devastating moment — when we finally discover why he became a spy for Israel, then betrayed it. 'His Jerusalem, his Israel, his end' began at his American suburban Yeshiva, as far from a black site as one could go. There, he was 'a little boy, with a heavy prayer book and a yarmulke, like a soup bowl turned over and resting atop his head' when, in a game, his teacher lifts him and pretends to fly him to Israel. In Englander's brutal, beautiful masterpiece, it is such small moments that make up the breadth of history. In this book, they take our breath away.
There are several narratives (I wondered if Englander had started with a collection of short stories and then used the multi-identity device that his theme of espionage affords to bind them) … Englander runs the risk of making the whole feel a little too slivered: most readers like to settle with characters, and would, in any case, surely claim decent attention spans by happy virtue of their reading at all. There’s also something deep in the tectonics of storytelling that grinds loudly in protest whenever a novelist genre-shifts from section to section … More concerning to me – and what stops the book reaching greatness – was the plot … Now I’m sounding as if I didn’t like the novel. But I really did. There were passages of great humanity and wisdom.
Here, in my estimation, is what the book is about, at its core: it is about terrible, terrible love … In between the extremes of aggression and surrender lies the muddy space of compromise, which Englander seems like he wants to explore through a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian. But though their existence is interesting?—?intelligence operatives but for opposing sides, both admits in conversation to their own side’s failings and wonders how they’ll be able to bridge the gap between them?—?the characters themselves aren’t really fully developed. They’re placeholders for ideology more than they are people. The implication, whether intended or not, is that compromise is indeed the least understood space in this conflict, the most romanticized yet least practiced.
In the novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Englander has a similar goal, but on a larger scale — namely, to tell the fraught history of Israel and Palestine, and the players, large and small, who created it ... But although Englander makes us witness to larger-than-life events, this is not a novel of historical accuracy, but of historical intimacy. The book's characters are all satellites of the nameless Z, a turncoat spy held in a black site in the Negev desert by Sharon ... Generally, there are two ways people write about Israel-Palestine conflict: to take a side, or to take no side. Englander's brilliance is in showing that sides, like the two states, are constantly shifting ... In Englander's brutal, beautiful masterpiece, it is such small moments that make up the breadth of history. In this book, they take our breath away.
Equal parts political thriller and tender lamentation, the latest from Englander explores, in swirling, nonlinear fashion, Israeli-Palestinian tensions and moral conflicts … Ultimately, Englander suggests that shared humanity and fleeting moments of kindness between jailer and prisoner, spy and counterspy, hold the potential for hope, even peace.”
Except for its focus on the fate of the Jewish state, Englander’s fourth book, his second novel (after The Ministry of Special Cases), is a spy thriller that has more in common with John le Carré than Cynthia Ozick ... Like Dorit Rabinyan’s recent novel All the Rivers, Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a wistful fantasy of an impossible Israeli-Palestinian romance ... Though written in English, it is attentive to the distinctive landscapes of Israel and speech patterns of Israelis ... Much of the end is told before the beginning, so the suspense that keeps us turning pages is not over what will happen next, but rather over what is the larger pattern that connects characters and situations ... Though the novel’s scattered design might irritate some readers who yearn for coherence, it reinforces the vision of a world in which each is condemned to separate, mute quarantine.
Nathan Englander’s new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, inspired by the Israeli Palestinian conflict, explores questions of personal, political, and moral identity ... This intricately plotted but character-driven novel tells the story and back-story of a young American Jew who is a secret prisoner in solitary confinement in Israel ... And this book is itself in disguise, allegory camouflaged as page-turner, parable gone under-cover as spy story. It’s a thriller and a morality play, tracing the boundary and the overlap between good and evil, morality and immorality ... In Dinner at the Center of the Earth he tells a compellingly readable story about good and evil, and our human capacity for both. Readers will be reminded of Kafka, Sartre, Dante, as well as Jacob and Esau.
A complex, fractured narrative, it requires patience to put all the pieces together, but ultimately repays the effort as the characters’ identities, histories and destinies click into place ... Here we meet a young American on the run who falls in love with a waitress. His romantic notions are not the only thing that gets in the way of his espionage success ... It all comes together to deliver a searing message about the difficulty of just action and human connection amid the pingpong match of retaliation in the Middle East. Dinner at the Center of the Earth will give them plenty to talk about in the bar at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ...a book full of betrayals, and paranoia, all of it derived from our most essential, most necessary aspect of being human: the relationship.
At heart, Dinner at the Center of the Earth is the story of an American who becomes an Israeli spy, then becomes a traitor to Israel for noble reasons. But, Englander acknowledges, the story is more complicated than that ... It's difficult to describe Englander's novel without giving something away. There's a delicious puzzle that becomes evident as it unfolds, and characters transform and surprise ... But as weighty and political as Dinner at the Center of the Earth seems, it's also a plot-driven page-turner. There's a love story, some trickery and a few careening escapes from danger ... Prisoner Z isn't smooth and spylike; this is no James Bond story. He makes mistakes, has doubts, falls in love and even enlists the help of his mother.
[Dinner at the Center of the Earth] never quite settles into the story it wants to tell ... Chapters alternate among these various threads. Unfortunately, Englander fails to fully weave them together. His tone is uneven—sometimes he strains toward humor, sometimes toward drama, without quite reaching either one. The humor sags, and the political intrigue doesn’t quite add up. If it’s a farce, it’s an uneasy one. Toward the end, Englander introduces a second romance, and this one feels rushed, tacked on like a donkey’s tail. Still, there are moments of fine writing throughout. An uneasy blend of political intrigue, absurdity, and romance struggles to establish a steady, never mind believable, tone.
...[a] clever, fragmented, pithy new spy novel ... With chapters that toggle back and forth in time and in location, the narrative begins on the Israeli side of the Gaza border in 2014, before jumping to Paris and Berlin in 2002, a hospital near Tel Aviv in 2014, the Negev Desert, and back again. Englander is a wise observer with an empathetic heart.