I first heard of this tragicomic spy romp around Israel and Palestine when Julian Barnes sang its praises in the Guardian a few months ago, having been ‘lucky to see an advance proof’. Lucky? Well, he and Nathan Englander do share an agent, who perhaps noticed that Dinner at the Centre of the Earth just happens to take its epigraph from a novel by, er, Julian Barnes.
That’s showbiz, I guess; and in any case, a spot of sly boosterism rather suits this mixed-up tale of cloaked allegiances, which never quite supplies the facts you need to grasp what’s going on — at least not during the globe-trotting, time-toggling fug of the novel’s opening half.
In 2014, someone known as ‘the prisoner’ rots in a bunker in the Israeli desert; why, we know not. In 2002, a Berlin-based wheeler-dealer calling himself Farid offers his contact in — or under — Gaza to a suspiciously chummy Canadian electronics exporter keen to skirt customs in Cairo. And back in 2014, a dying man resembling Ariel Sharon — Márquezianly dubbed ‘the General’ — slips from his Jerusalem hospital bed into a limbo writhing with flashbacks to a half-century of bloodshed.
Clarity comes with the unmasking of Z, a double agent gone to ground in Paris, paranoid about the long arm of Mossad while fretting opaquely about ‘what he’d done’. If it seems absurd when he beds an Italian waitress quicker than you can yell honeytrap — bad spycraft, or bad stagecraft? — you sense the prospect of building a novel around a solitary fugitive just didn’t grab a writer who thrives on dialogue. The book’s most pungent scenes ring with verbal rat-a-tat over Israeli military strategy, reviled by one veteran as a ‘fucking terrorist recruitment campaign’, but upheld by the General, shown supervising the wiring of dynamite into the doorframe of an Arab home where ‘children’s heights were marked’.
Englander’s problem isn’t texture, but structure: he stakes the book’s emotional and symbolic impact on two cross-border lovers introduced too late for us to care much that they’re separated by a checkpoint. And the hopscotch narrative makes much of the mystery a sham; not least because Englander ends up having to spell things out anyhow, seguing (for instance) into one of several handy overviews when someone’s ‘thoughts veer to the severity of the situation’. Better, perhaps, to have kept it simple to begin with.