Understanding how violence crushes the human spirit


Dinner at the Center of the Earth: A novel by Nathan Englander, Knopf, US $26.95, Pp 272, September 2017, ISBN 978-1524732738

In 1996, Nathan Englander moved to Israel in search for peace. He thought that it was right there and it was going to happen. Englander planned to live in Israel for a brief period but he ended up staying back in Jerusalem for an extended period of time. He even lived through the second intifada in Jerusalem “where everything was falling apart, but peace was still just one signature away.” Dinner at the Center of the Earth is the product of that labor of love.

In an interview, Englander summed up Dinner at the Center of the Earth when he said, “I became obsessed with the maddeningly circular nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the same battles are fought again and again. I wanted to create a novel that structurally represented the spirit of violence, and explore the extremes of empathy needed to stop it. Through character, through the story, I wanted to look at that epic lost moment, to remind myself that peace was right there, and it can be there again.”

The novel has a large number of varied characters. They include a prisoner in a secret cell, the guard who has watched over him a dozen years, an American waitress in Paris, a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman, and The General, Israel’s most controversial leader, who lies dying in a hospital, the only man who knows of the prisoner’s existence.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is an emotionally personal novel for Nathan Englander who intensely felt for peace. From these different characters, Nathan Englander weaved an intricately and suspenseful portrait of Israeli nation torn apart by insoluble conflict. It is the portrait of a nation whose citizens’ lives are fatefully and inextricably entwined. By using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Englander tries to understand the psychology of violence and how it crushes the human spirit. He explores the anguished, violent division between Israelis and Palestinians, and insoluble hate between them. Nathan Englander explores and highlights the moral ambiguities haunting both nations. You will learn more about the human dimension of the Palestine-Israeli conflict from this political thriller than many scholarly books combined. If you like to read political novels, Dinner at the Center of the Earth will surely thrill you.

Nathan Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases, and the story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Englander’s play The Twenty-Seventh Man premiered at The Public Theater in 2012. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in New York with his wife and daughter.