As a storyteller, Nathan Englander has always excelled at showing the cracks and fissures in insular groups that seem, to the outsider, homogenous: Orthodox Jews, Holocaust victims, even other writers (one of the most fractious tribes in existence). In a singular example from the short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," a survivor, upon meeting a man whose number indicates he was three people ahead in line when they were tattooed, irritably calls his fellow sufferer a "cutter."
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. These include prime minister and Ariel Sharon — known here as "The General"; Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace plan devolves in a few moments; and the notorious battles that make the countries' names as bitterly contested as their borders.
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. There is Sharon's loyal assistant Ruthi, whose son becomes Z's guard; Farid, who funnels terrorists money from a redoubt in Germany and is Z's downfall; Shira, the spy who brings Z in; and Shira's beloved mapmaker, a Palestinian who sketches the borders of a two-state solution that will never come to be.
These fantastic parties are brought to us in the quotidian. Z's guard has nicknamed his cell "The Peach Pit" "for no good reason other than he was home smoking a joint and reading the Hebrew subtitles of a Beverly Hills 90210 rerun with the sound turned off when he got the call for a job." Ruthi spends her days at Sharon's bedside, where he lies in a coma, "waxed and rouged like a Red Delicious." The turncoat Z himself is only caught from because he ventures out of his hideout in Paris once a day for a dish of sharp feta.
You could be forgiven for thinking Englander wrote the book while in a perpetual state of hunger. (The General's son is shot while a bowl of salted almonds and fat figs sit at his side.) But in this novel, food is the civil conduit for incivility. How are explosives bought? Over a German pastry spread. One's Jewish identity erased? While swapping a yarmulke for a bar of chocolate. A secret peace talk held? Over a watermelon and feta salad. And where do border-crossed lovers meet for their Dinner at the Center of the Earth? Over candlelight in the tunnels from Gaza to Israel that are being built to ferry the instruments to destroy it.
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. When he asks his guard for help in being released and the soldier scornfully, affectionately asks him, "sure...How did taking an idiotic moral stand work out for you?", he could be referring to either.
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.