I’ll admit to some trepidation when I started Dinner at the Centre of the Earth. Two reasons. One: I wasn’t sure the writing could live up to the greatness of the cover design—I’ve been tricked before. Two: the book has the same flip-flopping, then and later and before format as Minds of Winter.
Nathan Englander’s book has fewer timelines to reference and no one-off points of view, so overall it’s a little tidier. I adapted. I survived. Not sure it’s my favourite approach: stories told by different points of view in a back and forth timeline. It’s 2014! No, it’s 2002! No, it’s 2004! It’s 2014 again! Whose point of view is this? I’m a bit of a lazy reader. Totally my fault.
To summarize, the plot is hard to summarize without giving everything away. Giving things away is a shame. Primarily, there is Prisoner Z, who has been held in a black site in the Negev desert for eight years, for reasons that slowly become clear. He betrayed his country. On purpose. Anyway, he’s there at the behest of someone I presume to be Ariel Sharon, although it’s not explicitly stated. I had to google the facts presented to make confirm my assumption, which was cobbled together based on foggy memories of high school history and college-era news headlines. I apologize if I am wrong and it’s not giving anything away to tell you this. I worry for people who didn’t read the newspaper in the 2000s and who try to read this book.
Z is not an unlikeable fellow. Before his jailing, he was quite relatable.
“Under unbearable pressure, plotting an escape from his self-inflicted bind, Z found he desperately needed to eat the comfort foods that calm him and remind him, from the inside out, of his real and true self. When expecting one’s own unexpected demise, isn’t it fair to keep taking a favourite last meal, until it proves to be just that?” This is some Grade A rationalization. I approve.
Even his jailer likes Z. He plays backgammon with him, and gives him a variety of sedatives when the occasion calls for it. They have a strange friendship, even though Z is a traitor for reasons he believes to be just and the jailor is not a traitor to Israel.
Who to trust, who to love, who to turn to for help and friendship are never clear or black and white. How can they be, when right and wrong, moral and immoral, good and bad are all mixed up depending on your point of view or side of the fence?
Related reads: I really enjoyed this article written by Englander, which appeared in the New Yorker. Read it here.
Nathan Englander was at Events 72 (The Interviews) and 89 (The Sunday Brunch) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.