Nathan Englander on “His Turducken” of a Novel: Spy Thriller, Love Story, Meta-History
Writing the Neverending Heartbreak of Israel and Palestine with a Little Bit of Humor
In his new novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Nathan Englander takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of Z, an American-born Israeli spy, who betrays his adopted country and winds up in a black site prison, a prisoner without a name or number. The General, an Israeli prime minister who has been in a coma for the last seven years, is the only official who can free Z.
Englander’s new book is at once spy thriller, love story, and meditation on the collapse of the Middle East peace talks. In a sharp departure from his early stories and his novel The Ministry of Special Cases, the book cuts between Z’s espionage in Berlin in 2002, his one-man prison near Gaza in 2014 and then back to Z’s comic post-treason love affair with an Italian waitress in Paris, as he waits for his enraged colleagues in the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, to kill him. Then the comatose General’s dreams begin to infuse the book.
In a wide-ranging, witty and impassioned interview by telephone from his writing office in Brooklyn, Englander spoke about why the spy Z bears a close biographical resemblance to a novelist named Nathan Englander.
“I lived in Jerusalem for many years,” said the 47-year-old Englander. “It seems that every holder of a foreign passport would get a letter asking if they wanted to do ‘foreign service.’ It was understood to be the Mossad invitation letter or talked about as such. I never got such a letter and I was insulted. I would be the worst spy, and it was as if they already knew that. ‘Let’s not invite that sensitive, long-haired hippie-type person.’”
Englander’s spy Z came from a bunch of quirky espionage stories from Israel. “When I moved to Israel in the 1990s, the Mossad had a failed mission to assassinate Khaled Meshaal, a Hamas leader in Jordan, by spraying poison in his ear,” said Englander. “One of the agents had a Canadian kid’s passport. On my last book tour in Israel, this guy called ‘Prisoner X’ had hanged himself in his cell. Prisoner X had not existed until he killed himself. He was an Orthodox Jew from Australia, who moved halfway across the world to Israel. He was so patriotic that he joined the vaunted Mossad, then he spies for the other side.”
“I was fascinated by what it takes to flip someone,” said Englander. “There are failures of character. People are passed over for promotions, people are trying to impress someone or are being blackmailed. I wondered how you could ethically flip someone.”
“My editor said to me, ‘I have an idea. Why don’t you make that line up and then we’ll market the book as a novel? Then you can make up more lines.’ She tortures me that way and I howl, because I am so exacting.”
“There are people who switch, who had awakenings,” he said. “How does Saul become St. Paul? I realized that was the way to write this story. What about a spy like me?” That’s how X became Z. It’s serious stuff because a man took his own life, but when I researched him, people would say of X, ‘He was nervous all the time.’ One guy said X told him he was a spy in his business accounting class.”
“That’s exactly how I would spy,” said Englander. “You’d call me on the phone, and I would say, ‘I really shouldn’t be saying this during an interview with Lit Hub, but I am doing some things.’”
Englander had moved to Israel in the 1990s during the hopeful days when the peace process with the Palestinians seemed to be working, and a two-state solution appeared inevitable.
“I moved back from Israel to New York in 2001 when Ariel Sharon became prime minister and watched the peace process fall apart,” said Englander. “It broke my heart. I never got over this lost peace that was right there. I have wanted to write a book like this for 20 years. It was something so close to my heart. The book had been 500 pages, but I cut it in half. The only way to tell it was through story and character.”
In Paris, the paranoid Z doesn’t know when he’s going to be stabbed with a poison umbrella, garroted or clobbered and thrown into the trunk of a car. “I love the notion of thinking how espionage works,” said Englander. “The serendipity of it fascinates me.” Z finds time to fall in love. “Someone at the height of paranoia, knowing that everyone is out to get him, he finds the time to approach someone else. People on their highest guard will get caught. The notion that you get to be proactive in your downfall intrigues me.”
The intrigue in the novel moves to Berlin, to the Negev Desert and Italy. There is an abduction and the accidental death of civilians. Englander gently mocks his more cerebral short stories set in Orthodox Jewish communities of the US and Israel.
“The joke that I am dining out on,” said Englander, “is that for Knopf’s 20 years of supporting me, I’ve written a book that is finally not about a rabbi eating toast. The book is set all over and there is actual action and actual twists.”
Englander’s comatose General bears more than a passing resemblance to Ariel Sharon, who was the savior of Israel multiple times, from the War of Independence in 1948 to the 1956 War and the Seven-Day War in 1967. Sharon also had the blood of Arab and Palestinian civilians of his hands, including the massacre at Qibya in 1953, where Sharon had a Jordanian village destroyed, killing dozens of civilians. (Qibya is now part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.) There was also the 1982 slaughter of as many as 2,000 Palestinians by Christian Phalangists at a refugee camp in Beirut in 1982, aided by the Israeli Army blocking the exits to the camp.
“They become Israel and Palestine, in a way, transcending it all. They understand that if you care about your own people, you must care about other people.”
In 2000, Sharon marched a large contingent of men up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, holy to the Jews. The site is also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Muslim site in the world. Sharon’s provocation led to the beginning of the Second Intifada that month. Despite his checkered past, Sharon became the Israeli prime minister in 2001, and served until he fell into a coma in 2006 after a stroke.
“I made the General,” said Englander, “even if there are a million echoes of Sharon. I needed to have him as my guy, separate from the real person, who I had extraordinary positions on.”
“To me, this notion of Sharon and my character the General, who both have a violent history, this trail of blood and aggression behind them, to me it was a strategic decision that a warrior would understand that the next great war would be fighting for peace. That Sharon gave back Gaza to the Palestinians, that to me was a literary example I would want to explore. It blew me away when he gave away Gaza. I really think Sharon knew that peace was the only option on the table.”
Englander offered up the idea that maybe the General, if not for his coma, would have given back the West Bank to the Palestinians. “Fiction allows me to take huge stands on huge ideas while exploring both sides,” he said. “I would love to think that Sharon would have pulled out.”
“I am an Israel arguer,” said Englander. “If you come at me from the right wing, I’ll go so radically left wing that it will make your head spin. Whatever side you take, I’ll try to make you see the other side. I am a great believer in the two-state solution. The Occupation is unacceptable,” he said, referring to Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza.
The General’s comatose dreams are potent. He returns again and again to the 1967 death of his young son, killed by a trophy of war, a one-shot Ottoman rifle inlaid with ivory. In another scene, the General and his radio operator are blown into the air on the edge of a battlefield. Suspended in the air like old mystics in a Marc Chagall painting, the General insists the radio operator turn on music for their descent to Earth.
The General also returns to the site of the Qibya Massacre. While his sappers wire the village’s houses with explosives, the General drinks good, strong coffee abandoned on the stove by a villager, and plays a record of a famous Arab singer. “Let this be the last album this house hears,” he muses.
“So many times, I wondered where his brain would go,” said Englander. “I loved the concept that the people believed in him, that they thought he was coming back from his coma. ‘He moved his finger!’ Of all the battles or memories he would fixate on, it would have to be the lost child. That one stayed with me.”
Sharon was shot in the gut and captured during the 1948 War, but survived. He was wounded and blown up numerous times. “Sharon was the soldier that could not die,” said Englander. Sharon finally did die in 2014.
A stickler for details, Englander researched if the particular record in the Qibya dream existed as a 78 rpm record in 1953 when his fictional house would have been blown up.
“Every detail in that scene was worried about,” said Englander. “I was discussing a scene with my editor about the view overlooking Jerusalem. “I said, ‘That tree would have been more to the side.’ My editor said to me, ‘I have an idea. Why don’t you make that line up and then we’ll market the book as a novel? Then you can make up more lines.’ She tortures me that way and I howl, because I am so exacting.”
Unlike many other novelists, Englander rarely uses his autobiographical details as a jumping off point for his fiction. “I’m so private and shy about my personal life,” he said. “Your job as a writer is to be fully naked, vulnerable and raw. To write about my dream of being a writer at the age of 21, I had to set the story in a Stalinist prison in the 1950s. That’s how far away I had to go.”
This novel was different. “I grew up Orthodox, Israel was part of our lives and I lived in Jerusalem for a million years,” said Englander. “Oh, I wanted to write a novel where I had access to information, like I’ve been to Berlin many times and lived by the lake that is in the novel. I teach in Paris for NYU. It took me a long time to discover that I could dip into memory for fiction. It doesn’t usually work that way.”
In Z’s big espionage plot, he betrays a Palestinian in Germany that leads to a Hamas commander being blown up in Gaza with a thousand-pound bomb. The bomb also wipes out the family next door, including nearly ten children. Z is devastated and thrown into a moral quandary that leads to his betrayal of the Mossad and Israel.
“This was a critical moment for Z,” said Englander. “He had pride in being a spy and this was a problematic situation. Z was able to empathize with Farid,” the Palestinian operative he takes down in Berlin. “This book is about empathy.”
Our interview happened ten days after the neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was murdered. At one point, right-wing militia members stood outside a Charlottesville synagogue with submachine guns on their shoulders, while parading Nazis shouted anti-Semitic slurs. President Donald Trump and his refusal to completely condemn white supremacist hate groups was an open wound in the conversation.
In response to the marching Nazis, Englander wrote a horrified and adept takedown of Nazi apologists in a New York Times op-ed three days after called “What Jewish Children Learned from Charlottesville.” Englander recounted the anti-Semitism he experienced in his native suburban Long Island in the late 1970s. There were both aggressive and casual anti-Semites in town, including men who would throw pennies at very young Jewish kids, so they would run to grab them. In a scene that is also in a childhood flashback in the new novel, Englander recounts walking home past a group of local hoodlums, while wearing his yarmulke.
“That scene was one of the last scenes I put in the book,” said Englander. “When have I shape-shifted before? From childhood, in moments of great threat. The yeshiva boys of my vintage all joked about it, calling it ‘the sweep,’ where you look like you are sweeping hair out of your eyes, but you are really taking your yarmulke off. ‘Look, I’m a Gentile!’”
The description of “the sweep” and the malicious penny tossing wound up in the op-ed. “I’m a parent now,” said Englander. “I have never felt anything as truly changing as parenthood has been. I will not have from the White House that world for my daughter.”
“The op-ed was insanely vulnerable-making,” said Englander. “It felt different than any piece of non-fiction I had ever written. It was my obligation to share this. I felt the obligation to write it as a citizen of this country. I just don’t want the children of our country—Hispanic, white, black, girl, boy, transgender, to go through this. I just couldn’t shake the memory. There are small slights, and there are bigger traumas (the attack in Barcelona was the next day), but these things don’t go away.”
“My wife said that she never had that kind of thing happen to her,” he said. “I said, ‘You tell that story all the time about how one of your high school teachers said he was going to turn you into a lampshade,’ a grotesque reference to Holocaust atrocities. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘I do tell that story.’”
“It is bizarre to live in a time where empathy is threatened,” said Englander. “What could the GOP position be, what does it mean to remove healthcare from children? This notion of abject greed, we can’t function as a society. Not Israel/Palestine, not here in the States. The only comic relief was that the men in Charlottesville were dressing like 75-year-old golfers as their brownshirt uniform.”
Englander sees moments of hope, though. He recounted going to a Brooklyn Nets basketball game recently, where a young man wearing a yarmulke, a rabid Nets fan, was screaming insults at the opposing team’s fans. The young man was not under threat of being beaten up while being obviously Jewish, at least not in Brooklyn.
When he lived in Jerusalem in the 1990s, Englander was infuriated by the tit-for-tat revenge killing on both sides, which had almost weekly fatal consequences for him and his neighbors. The Palestinians would carry out a suicide bombing on a bus. The Israeli military would retaliate with an air strike on a military target in Gaza, often killing civilians, as well. Then there would be another suicide bombing. “That’s the cycle in the book,” said Englander “That’s why I was losing my mind in Jerusalem. I couldn’t get over the idea of who they were defending. If an Israeli jet bombed Gaza, my neighborhood in central Jerusalem would be bombed. Several of us would die.”
“After that one-ton bomb was dropped in Gaza in 2002,” said Englander of the real-life killing of a Hamas leader, “the bombing of Hebrew University was only eight days later.”
In discussions with Israeli leaders, the General says that his goal with retaliatory attacks on Israel’s enemies is to make the price of Jewish blood too expensive for their enemies… you kill an Israeli woman settler and her children, we will come and level your village. “Where is the line?” asked Englander. “To take revenge, where is the line? It echoes out. Where does the line of punishment end? Where does the vengeance end? What is the payment?”
With the General in his coma, Prisoner Z may have no way out. Every month, he writes a letter to the comatose General arguing for his freedom, for Prisoner Z does not know he is in a coma. He sits in his high-tech cell where cameras monitor his every move and writes. “It’s an outsized notion for me, that of being trapped and forgotten,” said Englander. “You think of Guantanamo, and there was a group of people not involved in terrorism, but who could not be released. You think of the wrongly accused, the disappeared, the prisoners who never get a trial, and it breaks my heart.”
Prisoner Z and his pot-smoking guard develop their own unhealthy symbiotic relationship. “Once again, it is much worse for the prisoner than the guard, but this set up condemns them both,” he said. “The occupied and the occupier. It’s like the Stockholm Syndrome.”
In 2014, there may have been another peace effort between the Israelis and Palestinians. Negotiations broke down over border minutia. Englander used this moment to set up a second love affair, this one between a former Mossad agent and the mapmaker on the Palestinian negotiating team. The lovers have a torrid affair, then find themselves trapped by borders. The mapmaker can’t leave Gaza without fear of arrest. The lovers come up with an outlandish, impossibly dangerous plan to meet.
“One tries to give oneself over to the work,” said Englander, “going wherever the book might go. It became clear to me what the book was. It was a kind of turducken of a novel—it’s a literary thriller, inside a metafictional history of Israel, inside a love story, tucked into an allegory. I did not want to deny the book any of the things it had become for me.”
After numerous bombings, the slaughter of innocents, prison sentences with no end and state leaders who lack the courage to sign the last document for new borders and maybe a solid peace, Englander finds some hope with his lovers.
“The end is a straight allegory,” said Englander. “These are people who have seen it all, who still believe in peace. They become Israel and Palestine, in a way, transcending it all. They understand that if you care about your own people, you must care about other people. With all that history, they can have true love.”