The epigraph that Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Nathan Englander chose to begin his 2017 novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” is taken from the stark and concluding sentences of Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel, “Sense of an Ending”: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”
It became evident that Barnes’ words are apropos not only to the themes of “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” but to the essence of Englander himself, when the author took the stage at City of Asylum on Oct. 24 to read from his novel and share stories about its genesis.
Englander was brought up Orthodox on Long Island and attended a religious day school. He now identifies as “secular,” but his best-selling books, including his short story collections “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” are steeped in Jewish traditions and mores. In 2012, along with fellow Jewish novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Englander released “The New American Haggadah”; Englander translated the Hebrew and Aramaic text, while Foer edited the text and commentary.
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” defies genre. It is part spy thriller, part magical realism, part political fiction. It spans time and place, shifting rapidly from 2002 — during the midst of the second intifada — to the summer of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, and moving from Paris to Berlin to a prison cell in the Negev to Ariel Sharon’s hospital bed, to even inside the mind of the comatose general himself.
At the center of the book is Prisoner Z, an American Jew turned Mossad agent who is being held for years in a remote desert outpost for treason with no hope of release. It is a commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the continuous cycle of terror and retribution — the “great unrest.”
Englander, at once funny, poignant and refreshingly honest, also appears to be a soul feeling the weight of “great unrest.”
He recounted his compulsion to move to Israel in the mid-1990s, when it looked like peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians was on the horizon.
“I was terrified I was going to miss out, but I was in Iowa City, Iowa, getting my MFA … and I was actually scared I was going to miss the whole peace, because you cannot stop something this good. As soon as I got my degree I flew to New York to kiss [my mother] and hopped on a plane to Tel Aviv.”
Soon after he arrived, he was having dinner with intellectuals in the German Colony in Jerusalem, when his host raised her glass and said, “Welcome to the Titanic.”
Yitzchak Rabin had been assassinated, and “busses were blowing up,” he said. But there was an energy in the atmosphere promising peace.
“I can’t even tell you what the feeling was on the street,” Englander said. “It really felt like it was happening.”
Englander lived in what he described as a “crazy neighborhood, a couple blocks from Mechane Yehuda.” He described shopping in that market prior to the beginning of a particular Shabbat, and shortly after arriving home hearing “a boom and then another low boom, because the market has just blown up.”
As a young Jewish man living in Israel at that time, “I was really ready to die for what I believed in, in a really different way,” he said. “We were making peace. There were only two sides to me then, that is really the core of this book. There was pro-peace; there wasn’t Arab and Jew/Israeli. There was, do you believe in peace or do you believe in perpetual war? Those were the sides. If me being part of this thing costs a life while we’re trying to build something, I thought I was up for that then.”
After more bombings occurred in his Israeli neighborhood, he came to a profound realization: He had to keep his daily routine despite the turbulence, the destruction, and the deaths.
“This is not about right or left, or greater Israel or Zionism or colonialism or any of these notions, it’s just about my neighborhood,” Englander said. “If you don’t go back the next day, you’re not going to go back the day after that or the day after that. It was about continuity.
“I start thinking, how am I going to continue in this way?” he said. “And it’s the peace; that’s how I’m going to continue in this way. And I start grabbing on to this notion of the moon. Like from the dawn of time, people have looked up at the moon and they’ve wanted to touch it. And with their slide rules, they sent someone to the moon. It’s literally impossible. It’s enough to get someone to the moon, but the part I still don’t understand, not having any science in my head, is we brought him back. If you can do that, how hard is peace? Let’s just make peace. It can’t be more complicated.”
Then in September 2000, on Rosh Hashana, Englander woke up to find “the country is on fire. Intifada two has broken out and it is more violent and more bloody, and there was just a different feel. Everyone on both sides, mutually assured self-destruction, we were just burning the whole thing down.”
He realized, “This isn’t getting fixed. Before, I was ready to die for something, but now I realized people were just dying and peace is not on the horizon and I am afraid.”
After living in Israel for five years, Englander came back to New York in 2001.
“I wrote this book, because that was really my American view of things,” he said. “I thought I was Israeli. Maybe the romance is what has to be removed. It was always complicated, it was never not complicated. But we execute the impossible all the time.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.