At the center of “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is Prisoner Z, whom the reader meets in a prison somewhere in the Negev Desert. At the same time, an unnamed “general” lies in a coma. Prisoner Z, the anti-James Bond, is under deep cover in Berlin, where he provides classified information to the Palestinians out of a moral calling; he then escapes to Paris where he is eventually captured. The general relives the accidental death of his young son, as well as the private and public battles he fought. The two men are a study in contrasts, as are a former Israeli spy and a Palestinian mapmaker who become lovers. Nathan Englander, 47, who now lives in Brooklyn, waited almost two decades to contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the novel’s unique structure. Englander recently spoke with JewishBoston about history as inspiration, what it’s like to be so connected to a place and his long-lasting desire to write about this topic. 

You lived in Israel, and the country is close to your heart. What finally inspired you to set “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” in Israel?

I wanted to write a [Middle East] peace process book ever since I left Israel in 2001. I moved to Israel for the peace process in 1996, and watching it crumble broke my heart. I feel that the further the peace process recedes, the more we should try to get it back. I don’t see what the other option is. 

What about the story of Prisoner X—or in the book, Prisoner Z—inspired you to write about him?


On my last book tour, as I was leaving Jerusalem, there was a front-page story on Prisoner X. He was a Kafkaesque figure in that the first time you hear about him is when he is dead—he only lived the moment he was dead. This idea of time being cracked open and [his] coming into existence when he was dead fascinated me. His life was also close to my life. I thought, “What is it for someone to be so committed to a country that they move there? What is it like to be so idealistic that he joins the Mossad, [Israel’s] vaunted and secret spy service?” Then he uses deep cover pretending to be other people, which is terrifying, and eventually becomes a traitor. We know that people become traitors because of failure or greed; we understand they can collude because of blackmail or they are passed over for a promotion. I was fascinated by the notion of what it would take for someone to become a traitor because he just felt for the “other.”

The character of the general is based on Ariel Sharon. What drew you to write about him?

Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharon is a subject that people come to loaded; they have strong, firm and passionate positions. I wanted to build a place in which people could reflect, to look at their values, to realize why they think what they think. The decision to make the general not explicitly Sharon is something that I needed this book to do. He was an extremely explosive figure—either you love him as a warrior and for the battles he waged, or hate him for the same things. [Yitzhak] Rabin was also a great warrior, but he loved peace and, at the end, was committed to a two-state solution. He felt for the Palestinian people. He believed in what he was doing.

Whereas Prisoner Z represents an exploration of empathy and peace, the general, like Sharon, is a man who would have gone all the way to Cairo when he was fighting in the Sinai. He stayed in Lebanon for 20 years. Sharon championed the settlements. The fact that Sharon pulled out of Gaza is gigantic to me. He didn’t do it because he loved the Palestinians. There was that interesting notion that everything he did was strategy. This father of the settlements who believed in land-grabbing saw that once he had the job of prime minister, his responsibility was to ensure the future. Sharon fascinated me in that he pursued peace as a strategy. 

(Courtesy image)
(Courtesy image)

You have compared the structure of this book to a “turducken.” How did you settle on the structure of the book?

This question is personally close to my heart and a subject that fascinates and obsesses me. I didn’t want this book to be a lecture, diatribe, a rant or my diary. That was of critical importance to me. You have to listen to a book. Anyone who opens this book has a position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I wanted to build a world where people could enter through story, through character and through plot. I spent years listening and thinking about this insane structure, which has five timelines and seven different plots, all of which are running in a circle simultaneously. That seemed to be the organic way to tell this story, especially since the conflict itself is just circles and cycles of violence—the same battle gets fought again, the same conflict rises again. I get obsessed with structural things. I wanted to tell this story for more than a decade; with the shortage of empathy in this world, this was really a time to do it.

Your fellow novelists, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, also set their recent books in Israel. Do you see this as a trend among Jewish-American writers of your generation?

I’ve never written about Jews, per se; I write about people. I’m a fifth-generation American; from the outside, I’m a hyphenated American, a Jewish-American. I’ve read Nicole and Jonathan’s books, been on tour with them—they are my good friends. For Nicole and her family, their entire connection to Israel goes back to escaping or surviving the Holocaust; it’s central to her family history. Jonathan’s book is about family and generations, raising children, sex and divorce.

It’s very interesting how we see these groupings. No one is saying there are so many books about New York City; it’s just a setting. So much of my book is set in Paris and Berlin, but no one calls it a German or Parisian book. Paris has the most pages in the book, and Israel the fewest. We are three different people with three different connections to a specific place. 

What is your next project?

I have so many projects going, which is a nice place for me to be. As much as this book was a departure structurally and plot-wise, I want to go back to where I started as a writer, exploring the sacred and profane and the religious and secular. I’m working on a short novel, and I’ve got a new play that Lincoln Center commissioned. I also want to write about the time I spent in Malawi last year.

Nathan Englander will be in conversation with WBUR’s Jessica Alpert on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at Temple Israel, in a program sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative. Find more information here.

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