This week’s New Title Tuesday selection, Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander, is as he described in an NPR interview, a “turducken of a novel. It’s like a political thriller that’s wrapped up in a historical novel that’s really a love story that ends up being an allegory.”
Publisher’s Summary: The best work yet from the Pulitzer finalist and best-selling author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges–a political thriller that unfolds in the highly charged territory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pivots on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard.
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.
From these vastly different lives Nathan Englander has woven a powerful, intensely suspenseful portrait of a nation riven by insoluble conflict, even as the lives of its citizens become fatefully and inextricably entwined–a political thriller of the highest order that interrogates the anguished, violent division between Israelis and Palestinians, and dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities haunting both sides. Who is right, who is wrong–who is the guard, who is truly the prisoner?
If Dinner at the Center of the Earth hasn’t already been tagged to be turned into a movie, surely it will be soon. Englander’s dialogue such as this from a ranking Mossad agent illustrates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Palestine isn’t a state when it concerns statehood. When it comes to warring, it’s a state, Yes? The Palestinians, they live in a country for the purpose of war,” highlight the
And this from a Hamas agent to a low-level Mossad operative who insists he knows nothing about a bombing that killed children in Gaza: “Don’t embarrass yourself any further. This is a courtesy call from your enemy. I just wanted to let you know, the economy of terror only strengthens. For the children you have just taken, we will take from yours.”
Inspired by the real-life story of Prisoner X, an Australian Mossad agent who died while secretly imprisoned in Israel, Englander said in an NPR interview that he was obsessed by the “notion that this person in real life, “did not exist until he was dead. That is, he had been disappeared into the system.”
Englander lived in Jerusalem. He told Rachel Donadio of the New York Times, “So many of the bombings during a period of terrible suicide attacks were near my house. I lived in the heart of the city, and my neighborhood would just blow up. There was this notion of people saying they’re defending their people or fighting for their people. And I just couldn’t shake it — we’re killing them because they killed us and they’re killing us because we killed them. Everyone always avenging. I just couldn’t shake this notion of the inability to see the other side.”
Dinner at the Center of the Earth is more than a political thriller. It is entertaining, educational, and heartbreaking.
Happy Reading, Susan C.
Also By Englander:
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges One of the most stunning literary debuts of our time, these energized, irreverent, and deliciously inventive stories introduce an astonishing new talent. In the collection’s hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets a special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. “The Wig” takes an aging wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. In “The Tumblers,” Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for the death camps and, in a deft, imaginative twist, turns them into acrobats tumbling out of harm’s way.
The Ministry of Special Cases In the heart of Argentina’s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won’t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence–and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear.
From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina’s Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won’t accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence–and denies a checkered history that only Kaddish holds dear. When the nightmare of the disappeared children brings the Poznan family to its knees, they are thrust into the unyielding corridors of the Ministry of Special Cases, the refuge of last resort.
Nathan Englander’s first novel is a timeless story of fathers and sons. In a world turned upside down, where the past and the future, the nature of truth itself, all take shape according to a corrupt government’s whims, one man–one spectacularly hopeless man–fights to overcome his history and his name, and, if for only once in his life, to put things right. Here again are all the marvelous qualities for which Englander’s first book was immediately beloved: his exuberant wit and invention, his cosmic sense of the absurd, his genius for balancing joyfulness and despair. Through the devastation of a single family, Englander captures, indelibly, the grief of a nation. The Ministry of Special Cases, like Englander’s stories before it, is a celebration of our humanity, in all its weakness, and–despite that–hope.
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