This is a most unusual title and storyline, this Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander. It may sound sci-fi or dystopia, but it’s a spy novel/love story. It’s an Israeli spy story with Israelis and Palestinians as the enemies. I love spy stories, I’ve blogged on spy stories, I love spy movies. I must say I’ve never read a spy story like this one. I promise no spoilers. The backdrop is the perpetual conflict between the two groups, so there are a couple of different threads and different time periods going on. The main thread is how does an American Jewish boy from Long Island become an Israeli spy who then betrays Israel? What is he thinking? The basic answer of how this happens is told poetically toward the end, “How it had come to this…had been set so very early…He had been given it so long ago, back in suburbia, back in America, a birthright spoon-fed to him in his Jewish day school classroom…A smile from the teacher, a glimmer to the eye. ‘We are going, my little Yidelach, to Yerushalyim. We are flying, right now to Israel. The Moshiach is coming and we need to get there. We need to help welcome him in.’ The teacher then spreads her arms wide….And she takes off like that, flying desk to desk around the room…all those arms tilting, and everyone running and howling and flying…I feel it, until I am looking down at the classroom below, down at New York, at America, until it all looks like desert…”
This idealistic little boy grows up and becomes a prisoner in a black-op prison in Israel whose existence is known only to an elderly general who is in a coma. Definitely a predicament. There are threads of relationships and friendships – the best one is between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. It will make you believe in humanity again against the brutality of this conflict. But the relationship between the spy and his long term guard is interesting as well. The two men are close in age and develop what might be described as a type of friendship. And the relationship between this general and his right- hand assistant becomes familial in nature or so it seems.
Basically that is all I can tell you without ruining some great parts of this really good book. It’s creative, it’s political, it’s suspenseful, it’s clever. Englander has a way of portraying the pain and suffering of both sides of this conflict, the shared humanity and the shared desire for revenge. The Jewish Journal says it’s “a dark, profound meditation on the state of Israel and also a gripping thriller, full of twists and moral ambiguity, it is an absolute joy to read.” I couldn’t say it better myself.