Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH
By Nathan Englander
272 pp. Knopf.
A chicken and egg situation: does history make a person or does a person make history?
Conquerors create history as they forge paths and blaze trails. Rebels rise above their historical circumstances to bring about change. Indeed, it seems a person is either a maker of history or a product of history. However, in reality, this dual classification is far from complete. A large number of people have remained nameless and faceless, and yet, sometimes their mere existence alone, have affected the course of our history.
Nathan Englander placed these nameless faceless people – human historical footnotes – at the forefront of his latest thriller, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Set in the ongoing Gaza-Israel conflict, the story revolves around Prisoner Z, a fairly normal American Jewish boy, who ended up both as an Israeli spy and a traitor to his country. The reader first meets him in a black site prison cell in Negev, a desert area in Israel. His entire story is constructed through a series of flashbacks. Since black sites are illegal, only a handful people are informed of his existence. In fact, only three people know the circumstances of Prisoner Z.
Of these three, only one has the authority to release him and he is called the General. The General is a legendary military strategist, a prime minister, a hero to his people and a heel to his enemies. His reputation is almost mythical; people think he will never die. But the General is also in comatose. The prison guard is the constant companion of Prisoner Z. Before working in a black site prison cell, he spent most of his time wondering what could have been if he was born under different socioeconomic conditions. That is until his mother, Ruthi, the trusted right-hand of the General, persuaded him to take on his present job. Ruthi is not just a mere employee; she is a believer of the General and a constant presence in his life. As death creeps upon him, her world slowly unravels as she questions her very being if he dies. The interconnected lives of these characters, or to paraphrase Englander, the infinite weaving of the paths of their lives make up Dinner at the Center of the Earth.
A couple more characters complete the cast: Farid, a Palestinian sympathizer and Shira, an Israeli spy. Prisoner Z altered the lives of both Farid and Shira, and in return, sealed his fate.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth is not your typical thriller. Its narration is best described as non-linear. It requires patience and circumspection. I refuse to use the phrase, but for lack of better term, this book forces us to think. It forces us to think about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the author does not explicitly state his position, he implies the necessity of finding a common ground, a common solution – a meeting at the center. And if accomplishing lasting peace requires an actual dinner at the center of the earth, then so be it, because this ‘bloody tit for tat’ has gone far too long. By the way, the story includes an actual dinner though not at the literal center of the earth. Seriously.
But I digress.
More importantly, it forces us to think about the plight of a nameless people. Curiously, at the heart of Dinner at the Center of the Earth are the existential dilemmas of nameless characters: the existential dread of a nameless prisoner, the existential what ifs of a nameless prison guard, and the existential limbo of a nameless general. I assume the author chose to keep most of his characters nameless to underscore a point: the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reduced most people to mere statistics and footnotes. The reports highlight the hundreds of rockets launched and the thousands of mortars shelled and the number of people caught in the firestorm. Eventually, history will compile these data to demonstrate the horrors and the hostilities. However, to fully understand history, we need to see the person behind the statistic and understand the life of a human footnote.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander is now available at select Fully Booked Stores. To reserve a copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowana.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]