With thriller, Nathan Englander spies heartbreaking circle in Mideast conflict
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Interview'Nobody believes in peace anymore, but what else is there?'

With thriller, Nathan Englander spies heartbreaking circle in Mideast conflict

An allegory for region's struggles, new novel 'Dinner at the Center of the Earth' reflects author's sadness at cycles of violence following collapse of 1990s peace process

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Nathan Englander (Joshua Meier)
Nathan Englander (Joshua Meier)

Since leaving Israel and moving back to the United States two decades ago, American Jewish writer Nathan Englander has wanted to write his new novel “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.”

Englander lived and wrote in Jerusalem for six years beginning in 1996, when he believed that peace between Israelis and Palestinians was at hand following the Oslo Accords. He left in 2001, soon after the outbreak of the deadly violence of the Second Intifada.

“I am telling a story about a period in my life that broke my heart,” Englander told The Times of Israel in an interview about the book, his fourth.

‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth’ by Nathan Englander (Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf)

The novel is a sort of fable/political thriller hybrid. Its ripped-from-the headlines sensibility is vividly deployed through key characters and historical events immediately recognizable to anyone who follows news from the Middle East. But Englander also employs the magical realism and allegory familiar to any who have read his prior works.

Among the main characters is “The General,” a comatose legendary military and political leader felled by a stroke. He is obviously modeled on the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

There’s also Prisoner Z, a Mossad agent held in a secret black site in Israel under The General’s orders, after being taken in by colleagues for treasonous actions. Prisoner Z strongly resembles Prisoner X, an Australian-Israeli Mossad agent with a similar story and fate, whose identity was revealed as Ben Zygier three years after he committed suicide in Israeli custody. The fictional Z provides classified information to the Palestinians out of a sense of empathy, while there is only conjecture about Zygier’s exact crime and motivation.

Ben Zygier. (Screenshot ABC TV via Youtube)
Ben Zygier. (Screenshot ABC TV via YouTube)

Englander said he wrote “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” to engage with the questions raised by the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. He doesn’t offer any answers aside from making it clear that he believes peace is still the only option.

Englander, 47, now lives in Brooklyn and is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University. The Times of Israel spoke with him about his novel’s complex structure, how life in Jerusalem informed his thinking, and why he still believes in peace.

Why has it taken you 20 years to write a book about Israel, a subject so important to you?

It was a huge heartbreak for me and so many of us when the peace process came apart. Peace was really happening. Since the end of the peace process and the Second Intifada, I’ve really just wanted to write that story. It’s close to my heart and incredibly important to me. But nobody needed a lecture from me, something didactic, like 900 pages of muddy meditations on the subject. I was just waiting until I found the form. I wanted to find a way to build a character- and plot-driven story, a way for people to enter and explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace, and as soon as I saw it, I wrote it.

The Mossad spy in the book, Z (who becomes Prisoner Z), doesn’t come across as a typical agent. There seems to be a lot of you in him.

[The real-life] Prisoner X was my vintage and we both moved to Israel — he from Australia, I from the States. And like me, he went to Jewish school, though his was more focused on Zionist Israel, and mine more on the biblical Israel.

[The fictional Prisoner Z] is my version of a spy. He is how I would be a spy. He’s so much like me. If I were a spy, it would be just like how it’s portrayed in the book. I would call my mom [when I was in trouble].

This novel has a circular nature. It spirals and goes back and forth in time along many plot lines. Can you explain your thinking behind this structure?

Nathan Englander (Courtesy)
Nathan Englander (Juliana Sohn)

The whole point of the book is the circular nature of the conflict and exploring sides. I’m a circular thinker. I’ve been holding these circles in my head. This is my organic way of telling a story.

What has me pulling out my hair are these circles of conflict. Right now Israel is building a wall into the ground on the border. There isn’t even a name for that. Walls go up. Hamas is building missiles that will reach further. Israel has a “mow the grass” plan so that it will be prepping for the Gaza war after the next Gaza war. These cycles of violence — of quiet build up, killing each other, destruction, simmer down, peace, rebuild, fight again — it’s heartbreaking to me. This idea with everyone being okay with eternal cycles of conflict, this is not an acceptable thing.

If I were building a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Gaza element, it had to have the circles in it, because that’s the organic structure of the story, the structure of the reality.

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed houses in the Shejaiya neighborhood, which, according to witnesses, was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during an Israeli offensive on Gaza City, July 26, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

How did living in Jerusalem at the start of the Second Intifada inform your thinking on the cyclical nature of the conflict?

There are two things that are core to this book that I learned from living in Jerusalem. One is about differences of opinion. There are two realities in America now, and I am trained for this from Israel. I lived in Jerusalem with the Temple Mount as my holy site. My Palestinian neighbors lived in Al-Quds with the Haram al-Sharif. That’s clear to me. It’s not bridging a spectrum or coming together over disagreement. It’s two different people in the same physical space who are in separate realities.

The second is I remember living at the height of the violence where it’s like, I didn’t care who was avenging who. When Hamas blew up a bus or my coffee shop or Ben Yehuda Street, all I thought about was, “You’ve just killed Palestinians.” I know the Palestinians were avenging something, but Israel was going to strike, and when Israel drops a one-ton bomb in Gaza…

Whoever was in charge said, “We’re protecting you,” but I didn’t know who they were protecting, because now my neighborhood was going to blow up. So whatever they were doing militarily it wasn’t to protect me, because real people are walking in the streets and the neighborhood blows up every time they are protecting me. That’s the cycle of everyone avenging and avenging and people dying. It’s maddening to me, and that circle is at the core of this book.

Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)
Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002. (Flash90)

Do you still believe that peace is attainable?

Yes, because what other option is there? I don’t understand the other option. There’s no notion of winning.  What does it look like if Hamas or Fatah wins? What does it look like if Israel wins? There are people on both sides who aren’t going anywhere. It seems to me some kind of horrible nightmare if anybody wins, because that means that somebody loses and that is very scary.

I know nobody believes in peace anymore, but what else is there to work toward? As the years have gone by, peace seems like more and more of an impossibility. But I was there, and I lived there, and you can’t tell me that it wasn’t happening. Peace was upon us. It really was.

Did you leave Israel because the peace process had fallen apart?

If I had moved back to New York from Los Angeles, it wouldn’t have a weight on it as a concept. But because it’s Jerusalem… If an American moves to Israel they’re supposed to stay forever. This is one of the belief systems, or entrenched ideas, I explore in the novel.

I was ready to go home. I was one person and a writer guy, and I loved my writing in New York, which I missed. I moved to New York because I thrive there. But my heartbreak over the peace process was part of it.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993.

A major theme you explore in this book is empathy. Your Mossad agent, Z, even flips over empathy for the Palestinians.

We know why people become traitors all the time — failures of character, they’re passed over for a job, blackmail. People want things, they’re hungry for power. But what about someone who flips over empathy?

It felt urgent to me to explore this idea, as empathy is getting in short supply in the world. More and more, on so many fronts, there is this lack of empathy. Why be in a society if you can’t be empathetic to others? We have a [US] government now that is taking healthcare from children… That is an abject lack of empathy. It’s just shocking to me. There are things going on now that are so extreme.

I grew up with Israel as a country surrounded by its enemies that wanted to push it into the sea, but in terms of empathy — can’t Gaza also feel surrounded? These people with electricity four hours a day and no way to travel and having to get passes for medical care — can’t they feel surrounded by enemies that want to push them into the sea?

Palestinian children do their homework by candlelight during a power outage in Gaza City on September 11, 2017. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

You are one of several leading North American Jewish writers, like Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer and Alison Pick, with recent novels about or set in Israel. Do you think this is a trend?

I am so happy to be part of this crew and linked to these writers, I get compared to nice people whose work I love and get grouped with friends.

All these books do have an Israel connection. I see it, but everyone’s connection to Israel is different. We all bring ourselves to the story. I can obviously see the link, but this is not the defining element of these novels.

There is no group think, like here’s the hot story. It feels more like we happen to be people with personal, cultural and historical links that have drawn us to write books that are partially anchored in Israel. Whatever part of writing that is subconscious is a thing that no one has access to. So I can’t tell you why it’s all bubbling up in us.

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