Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Englander, Nathan (2017), Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Knopf
ISBN 9781524732738

In a tunnel, dug by a Palestinian “tunnel millionaire,” a Palestinian politician and an Israeli ex-spy meet up and have a dinner as the 2014 Gaza War flares up above their heads. Theirs is the Dinner at the Center of the Earth of Nathan Englander’s 2017 novel. It’s a curious, Salman Rushdie-esque moment, not just the dinner, but also the discussion that led to it. This is not the only humorous moment of historical drama in the novel that to me had echoes to Rushdie’s work – and indeed those are some of the novel’s best moments. That said – the book has a lot of good moments. It’s simply a very good book. I may be biased – despite my problems with short stories, I have always enjoyed Englander’s books. I can’t even entirely explain why. I think he hits some of my soft spots very exactly, and I have to say it always comes as a bit of a relief to see that the reading world at large often shares my positive opinion of Englander – because I sometimes truly have difficulties rationalizing my enthusiasm for his prose and plots, as well as his characters and charisma. It’s a bit easier, I think, to explain why I consider Dinner at the Center of the Earth such a good novel. It’s true – it’s a bit uneven at times, but this unevenness is baked into the whole. It’s supposed to be a bit off, to take some reading and rereading to fully gel. When I read the novel for the first time, I wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a combination of great and awful short stories awkwardly glued together. But what it really is is a masterful writer’s ability to hold several balls in the air at the same time, and make the whole circus act cohere. It does not cohere into a message, or one triumphant final tableau. In fact, the book’s two final scenes, one about a war that starts above ground while two lovers dine underground, and one about a suicide, are two versions of a darkness that few writers can articulate as well as Englander. There is grace and humor to the suicide scene, which is one of the strangest scenes of its kind that I can remember reading recently. And the eponymous dinner – framed in every way like a metaphor for political reconciliation, for hope in a hopeless conflict – ends with two lovers huddled in the darkness, scared, or resigned or both. Many of Englander’s decisions in the novel are a bit unexpected and this is part of what makes the novel such an interesting achievement.

The novel is written in alternating chapters following a spy story, the story of a black site prisoner, the story of a millionnaire and a Palestinian upstart meeting on a lake in Berlin, as well as – and that is surely the most unexpected of all the decisions – a story about Ariel Sharon’s death, which is told from two angles. From the angle of those watching him die, and from within Sharon’s own mind, who had been in a coma for 8 years before he passed. Englander never names Sharon, but he also doesn’t disguise him. His character, “the General,” has Ariel Sharon’s biography, but by eliding his name from the story, Englander allows himself to invent, embellish and adorn the death of Sharon. It turns his death and life into a tale – one with a broader purview than just the complicated life of a complicated man. Englander zooms in and out of realism in the story, and in and out of genres. He doesn’t name Sharon, but when he describes Ehud Olmert’s peace offering, he names Olmert specifically, and describes him clearly and sharply as “the least prime-ministerial person […] with his shadow of a comb-over, and his wiry, runner’s frame, and the exhausted, in-over-hishead, watery eyes.” One assumes this decision is connected to ideas about the narrative of nationhood, about the way acts of violence become part of national myths, and the fabric of the stories we tell each other about our realities. The General is a larger than life person, and he has shaped the fate of his country like few others, from the wars he fought at the beginning of his career to the big steps he took at the end. What’s more, his actions, before he slipped into a coma, felled by a stroke, determine the options that all the other characters of the novel have. If the novel is uneven and complicated, so was Sharon’s life, and the novel demonstrates what some statesmen offer their country, good and bad, and how far and wide these decisions cut. In some sense, the final pages tell us: this is who we are now, and this man, he is part of the reason why. We read Sharon’s thoughts and memories, but it is not living, breathing Sharon that speaks – Englander has animated Sharon on his comatose deathbed for us. The General finds himself in “a kind of sheol, a limbo space” which, before him, was shared by “other Israeli kings.” To leave it, he has to fully launch himself into myth, away from reality, into a place that is both national narrative and personal delusion.

And he is not the only one in this novel. All characters launch themselves in one direction or another. From small movements, like pushing off to sail on a lake, or the thrusting pushes of lovers, to larger thrusts, like the decision to follow one’s conscience, to flee, to kill oneself, to change one’s life in one way or another. As the book’s chapters alternate, so do times and places. Some of the book is set in 2014, some of it in 2002, some in 2003, etc., and that doesn’t even include reminiscences and memories. People and trajectories end up circling around Israel, this resilient little nation in the Middle East. Although Englander includes two central Palestinian characters, he isn’t really interested in them – he is more interested in the complexities of the Israeli experience, the Israeli conscience. There are no “civilians” in the book, really, with one major exception. Mostly, they are spies and politicians – and the General, of course. There is a curious balance that Englander strikes between the General on the one hand – he who doesn’t doubt his duty to his country, and who is willing to do things we might not all be willing to do, in order to, as he sees it, bring peace and security to Israel. On the other side are two spies who doubt their duty, who doubt the necessity of murder in order to achieve balance and peace. It is not, obviously, conducive to their safety, to harbor thoughts and opinions like that. And as there is no easy solution to the geopolitical problems swirling around Israel, there’s similarly no easy solution to Nathan Englander’s excellent novel. This includes the novel’s style of writing. Englander can command with some ease a specific style, a rich, embroidered language that he uses here to tell stories of weight and pathos. He is also incredibly deft with humor, particularly Jewish humor. And a scene written in one style, can often switch to a scene written in the other. And this doesn’t include the stories of espionage in Berlin, Paris and Capri, for which Englander often chooses a looser, slightly flattened language. All of this is incredibly readable. It’s hard to beat Englander for sheer enjoyment. If he wanted, he could write a simple tale of myth and Jewish kitsch, and have the result be utterly adorable and successful. It’s a sign of the author’s talent and – dare I say it, four books into his career?, importance that he built this book into something much larger, and much less obviously pleasing. It’s a book that reckons with a personal and political darkness.

In the novel, the General, Sharon, that is, remembers Ben Gurion telling him, after Sharon committed one of the most infamous massacres attributed to him, that “the world hates us [Jews], and always has. They kill us, and always will. But you, you raise the price,” and exhorts him to not “stop until killing a Jew becomes too expensive. […] You, put here solely to raise the bounty hung on the Jewish head. Make it expensive. Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.” At the end of the book, we hear Hamas’s rockets rain down on Jews, and Israeli retaliation. Looking at the results, we can all calculate the current “price” for ourselves, but clearly, Ben Gurion’s ideas, or Sharon’s memories of them, have not helped. Sharon himself had a change of mind later in his life, a change that is recorded in the novel as well. So what now? The novel has no answer – and sometimes borders on defeatist. But maybe it’s its form, and its language and the urgency of its propositions that are the real solution on offer: it’s us, all of us, and our voice, our art and our thinking that can change things. And kindness and generosity. All of this is contained in Englander’s novel, which gets better with every reread. In his acknowledgements, he mentions cutting this novel from the body of a larger work. I cannot wait to read it.

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Fairness, finally?

Richard Goldstone, co-author of the infamous Goldstone report (google it, I won’t link to it), is finally starting to back off some of his claims. Read this brief piece in the Washington Post.

We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.

(via)

Inconceivable!

NYTimes

Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version.

“That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.”

Oh yeah? Yeah!

“Ellis” of The Barbaric Document fails to understand something.

Atwood is well known as an outspoken campaigner for human rights, the environment and social justice

gushed Green MP Caroline Lucas in last Saturday’s Guardian.

Oh yeah?

Neither the Tel Aviv University that developed the DIME bombs used against civilians in Gaza, nor the state of Israel whose commitment to cultural openness does not include allowing Atwood’s books into Gaza, were taken to task, but the letter campaign asking her to refuse the prize was the target of her moral outrage. How noble!

The answer to the question in the middle is: oh yeah. Follow Ellis’ links and you end up on the homepages of people who want to abolish Israel, who want an Arab state to take its place. Thankfully neither Atwood nor Ghosh ceded to their pressure. Atwood’s own statements, which I only found on a page I will not link to, are remarkably clear-headed, careful and nuanced. They show a moral writer who has not ceded to today’s hot climate of fanaticism. The same writer you also find in her marvelous novels and good poems, which I fully recommend to any and all of you.

‘Kauft nicht beim Juden’

This, sickeningly, in the Guardian. Jesus.

Britain has acted to increase pressure on Israel over its West Bank settlements by advising UK supermarkets on how to distinguish between foods from the settlements and Palestinian-manufactured goods.

The government’s move falls short of a legal requirement but is bound to increase the prospects of a consumer boycott of products from those territories.

Until now, food has been simply labelled “Produce of the West Bank”, but the new, voluntary guidance issued by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says labels could give more precise information, like “Israeli settlement produce” or “Palestinian produce”.

Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds

Modan, Rutu (2008), Exit Wounds, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Noah Stollman]
ISBN 978-1-897299-83-8

I am deeply impressed by Rutu Modan. She is a young Israeli writer and artist, whose work has been trickling slowly into our English-speaking hands. There was a wonderful column at the New York Times, called Mixed Emotions (direct link here) from May to October 2007, and then the same year, Drawn and Quarterly published her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, in a translation by Noah Stollman and it’s one of the best graphic novels I read all year. It is marvelous. Rutu Modan has created a humane, smart, beautiful book that challenges you and charms you at the same time. It is so complete and well-structured that it’s hard to believe that this is her first solo full-length book.

Prior to this publication, Modan was mostly a creator of cartoons and short sequences, most notably as editor of the short-lived Hebrew version of MAD Magazine. She also co-wrote a graphic novel that hasn’t yet found an English publisher or translator. A few stories of hers were published by Drawn and Quarterly as Jamilty and other Stories, and we can only hope there’s more to come. Exit Wounds is a full success, revolving around some similar issues as Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” memoir Fun House, but without the portentous Bildungsbürger weight that Bechdel hangs on her narrative. There is a certain lightness to Modan’s book that impresses me more than many other aspects of it, what with all the bleak- and darkness that it has to contend with.

Exit Wounds is, after all, at least in part, a novel about death. It is an explosion by a suicide bomber, murdering people by a bus station cafeteria in Hadera that provides the impetus for the main plot, which is fashioned with many of the trappings of the mystery genre. Many people among the murdered have been identified, except for one. Numi, young woman, watching the news, suddenly, startled, sees a scarf on the the street, unattended, orphaned from its owner. She recognized the scarf immediately, knowing it to belong to her lover Gabriel Franco. The body, however, cannot be identified by any normal means, the only possibility left is a blood test. Gabriel is (was?) an old man, with an ex-wife and children and so Numi decides to speak to his son and convince him to take that blood test.

This is where we enter the story. We meet Koby Franco, a taxi driver in his twenties, who appears to be somewhat ill-tempered and who’s certainly not happy with the direction his life has been taking. One day, a woman steps up to him and tells him his father has been killed in an accident. When he finds out that the scarf is her sole evidence and that she has approached him to make the identification, he dismisses her hypothesis and leaves. Not until weeks later, after not having been able to contact his father, after entering his father’s apartment only to find it deserted, he decides to have a more thorough talk with Numi to ascertain whether her fearful speculations hold any water.

Together they set out on an odyssey to Hadera and other places. Hadera is a city of some 77000 inhabitants, near Haifa. In the early 2000s it has known a fair amount of murderous attacks, numbers which have only gone down after the construction of the West Bank barrier, which, in Hadera as in other Israeli cities, has increased safety noticeably and significantly. Rutu Modan’s story, however, which is inspired by David Ofek’s 2003 documentary No. 17, about someone who died in a suicide bombing in 2002 and could not be identified, takes place before this.

The Hadera we encounter is a lonely place. People are hardened, the explosion, although it has taken place in the recent past, hasn’t left the impression upon their memories that it could have. A woman in the cemetery grins as she talks about a large number of victims to be interred the day Koby and Numi visit. Another woman hasn’t mentioned her being close to the explosion to her husband so he wouldn’t find out she was cheating on him. An immigrant, traumatized, leaves the country, which one of the regular patrons of the cafeteria comments with a shrug, mentioning that “her cleaning got worse.” On Israelis, these heinous attacks seem to leave but a fleeting impression, but that’s only superficially true. In Exit Wounds, the brown, gray and ocher exteriors of cities like Hadera bespeak the loneliness, the sense of loss, of fear even, that permeates the everyday.

This experience of loss, in turn, is part of an exploration of the relationships between the survivors. All kinds of characters are in love, or in relationships. The love story at the heart of the book is especially striking in that it is initially introduced by way of another relationship, Numi and Gabriel’s. A love letter to Gabriel, penned by Numi, quoting a Cole Porter song, serves as a catalyst, as kindling for the fire of what will start out as friendship and end up in a steaming sex scene on a lawn (this scene, by the way, is one of the most perfectly realized scenes I have ever encountered in this medium, these are panels that are sensuous but also fueled by a very intimate kind of realism, slightly off, but highly believable).

The love story sneaks up on you, it hides under the mystery plot and takes up more and more space, in fact, the two stories are intertwined, and as the love theme takes up speed, the reader is more and more enchanted, but despite the magical qualities it develops, the love story always, like that scene on the lawn, stays believable. The character of Numi and her visual representation has a large role in this. Unusual for visual media, Numi, the female love interest in Exit Wounds is rather plain and Rutu Modan frequently opts to dress her in clothes that conceal rather than expose her figure. Since the basic silhouette of the female body is so well established as a signifier, Modan’s decision here is remarkable and ties into other decisions concerning sex and gender, which are also rendered visually.

The fact that so much of the book is as dependent upon the art as upon the writing is another reason why Exit Wounds is so good. I think it’s the mark of an excellent graphic novel that many significant ideas are conveyed visually rather than through the writing. The artwork isn’t a substitute for writing, or an ‘enhancement’, and writers or artists who recognize the unique powers that the art has in telling not just a story, but in exploring and interrogating ideas and concepts, frequently produce stunning works. Rutu Modan’s art, clearly indebted to the ligne claire style of francophone comics, is successful in conveying that tension between light and dark elements I mentioned before.

The precise, highly detailed background, its colors perfectly conveying shifts in light and mood, is often devastating in its depiction of landscapes empty of human beings, or fading passers-by into a brownish background. And even when Modan pits her characters against a flat, monochrome background without any details, the effect is harsh, as it draws out the loneliness in the characters acting in the foreground, their every gesture and facial expression look suddenly so much more significant.

These gestures are interesting in their own right. Modan’s cartoonish way of drawing her characters, significantly less detailed than the background, reduced to a few important, telling lines, eschews the hyperrealistic (but artificial) style that, for example, Terry Moore employs. Despite not always being anatomically correct, her characters appear all the more life-like. I find it hard to describe, but I would describe it as a kind of warm realism, capturing the sense of a gesture more than the precise angle of the limbs involved. Modan’s art brings her characters to life; unlike Terry Moore’s art, for example, which uses, or toys with, iconical imagery, Modan’s interest is less intertextual, so to say; it’s her artwork, more than the dialogue (which is sometimes rather wooden, after reading Mixed Emotions, I blame Stollman’s translation) or other aspects of her writing, which creates the sense of verisimilitude that I have kept mentioning.

This believability, in turn, makes her ideas, whether it’s about the consequences of terror in a haunted populace, as mentioned above, or about issues of gender (women with make-up, for example are drawn with wider eyes, in a more exaggerated, doll-like manner, perhaps signifying the role they assume by dressing up like that), more palatable and the whole of Exit Wounds less like a sustained discourse of ideas about all kinds of things than an affecting and effectual story about a human’s fate and two other persons’ love. That love is not an alternative to the loss that the explosion has caused in the survivors and that permeates the pages of Exit Wounds.

In fact, the central and all the smaller peripheral relationships which become the more visible the more the novel progresses, are, I would argue, structured by absences. Absences drive people into relationships or keep people in them, some, like the embittered waitress at the cafeteria, clearly keep up relationships with the deceased, the eternally absent ones. At the core of all this is Gabriel, Numi’s former lover and Koby’s father. Slowly but surely he emerges as a fascinatingly itinerant character, in search of his identity, professional as well as personal. People who loved him or knew him once can only hold on to that sliver of his personality, the fact that they believe they know him is the perfect indicator that he’s gone again, in search of a different identity. He is always absent, not just in the pages of Exit Wounds, but also in the lives of its protagonists. He leaves behind objects, words, memories which help to construct his past but are useless in the present.

That permanent absence, that elusiveness serves to elevate Modan’s book onto a different level of discourse. Ultimately, she succeeds in welding the personal level (the love story, finding out about your father’s fate etc.) to a transpersonal level, thus raising questions (especially with the political subtext) about different identities, about general questions of inheritance and tradition (after all, the father/son dynamics are highly important). One of the major concerns in Exit Wounds, I think, is the role of the younger generation in a country so dominated and structured by the discourse of the founding fathers’ generation, the fathers’ religion. Modan’s answer is a humane one, a call to step free from the obsession with and the search and constant scrutiny of the past, a call for a communication between individuals of the younger generation, almost, even, an admonishment for them to make their own lives, to jump, even, into the future, relying on one’s fellow men. And Modan does this seemingly without effort, within just under 200 pages, and wholly successful. Extraordinary.

Fair and Balanced?

Some of these days it hurts to look at the paper or at message boards I usually frequent, especially when the name ‘Israel’ crops up. I’m glad there’s some sanity in the world still, though. There’s Max Boot, bitter and flippant but sadly correct in saying this in the Commentary

After reading the Goldstone Report on human-rights abuses committed during the Gaza War (December 27, 2008–January 19, 2009), all I can say is, it’s a good thing that the United Nations wasn’t around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for “grave” abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally “grave” abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities. The recommendation, no doubt, would have been that both sides be tried for war crimes, with Adolf Hitler in the dock alongside Franklin Roosevelt. Actually, that may be giving the UN more credit than it deserves. To judge by the evidence before us, the likelihood is that the UN in those days would have devoted far more space to Allied “abuses” than to those of the Axis and would have recommended that FDR stand alone before the world court.

and on the more careful side, Dan Kosky, in a very considered, well argued article in the Guardian states, among other things

Grave doubts over the investigative process have been realised by the mission’s conclusions. … The report is replete with dubious statistics and sources. Casualty figures are quoted from the Gaza based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a politically motivated organisation, which consistently refers to terrorism as “resistance”. PCHR’s faulty statistics include senior Hamas military figures such as Nizar Rayan and Said Siam, as civilians.

Reading the report, one would be unaware of Hamas’s human-shield strategy, a significant contributory factor to the civilian deaths in Gaza. … Although he states: “Palestinian armed groups were present in urban areas during the military operations and launched rockets from urban areas”, he avoids the logical conclusion of the massive use of human shields. … Yet, rather than state the inconvenient truth, the report reinforces preconceived Israeli culpability.

Goldstone is similarly evasive over the unreliability of key “eyewitnesses”. … The report applies entirely illogical reasoning, failing to elaborate on “a certain reluctance by the persons … interviewed in Gaza to discuss the activities of armed groups”. This observation provides a glimpse of the dangers faced by those speaking out against the regime in Gaza, yet Goldstone omits to mention how Hamas intimidation undermines witnesses and with it the very foundation for his conclusions.