The best work yet from the Pulitzer finalist and best-selling author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges - a political thriller that unfolds in the highly charged territory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pivots on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard.
A prisoner in a secret cell. The guard who has watched over him a dozen years. An American waitress in Paris. A young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman. And The General, Israel's most controversial leader, who lies dying in a hospital, the only man who knows of the prisoner's existence.
From these vastly different lives, Nathan Englander has woven a powerful, intensely suspenseful portrait of a nation riven by insoluble conflict, even as the lives of its citizens become fatefully and inextricably entwined - a political thriller of the highest order that interrogates the anguished, violent division between Israelis and Palestinians and dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities haunting both sides. Who is right, who is wrong - who is the guard, who is truly the prisoner?
A tour de force from one of America's most acclaimed voices in contemporary fiction.
"Nathan Englander's latest is, as usual, superb: A work of psychological precision and moral force, with an immediacy that captures both timeless human truth as well as the perplexities of the present day." (Colson Whitehead)
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So Many Roads to Peace, Blocked
I've loved many of his performances. This is one of his weakest, I think, since he doesn't seem to know Israeli pronunciations for some of what he's reading in character.
So, nu, how do we find peace in the Middle East?
One answer, at least as Nathan Englander imagines it in this generally masterful novel, is Ariel Sharon’s. “The General,” as we meet him here, never backed down. With him it was always about killing a dozen of them for every one of ours. When the PLO killed a mother and her children in a cross-border raid, he leveled an entire village.
With him, it is always go forward, but there is an end – at least as Ruth, his long-time aide, believes. She sees him readying a “peace bomb,” a plan to produce a lasting peace that would grow out of the military mercilessness to which he gave his life.
But, as is the case for most of the present-tense of this novel, he has given only half his life to that strategy. As in real life, the General suffers a debilitating stroke and remains barely alive. In his half-life, he relives much of the always-attacking nature of his life. At times, Englander’s prose is incandescent here. The scene where the General relives a moment when he and a radioman were blown into the air by a bomb is worth the whole of the novel. It’s horrible, gorgeous, and mystical. And unforgettable.
As it turns out, then, there’s no way to unleash anything like a peace bomb, no way to redeem the violence of the last generation. The most evocative sign of that stasis – aside from the General’s own “limbo” – is Ruth’s son, a guard assigned to look after Prisoner Z. If there’s a point-of-view character who earns my sympathy, it’s the guard. He spends his life pursuing the “request,” really an order, the General made of him. He looks after a man who is no longer a real person, waiting for an end that cannot come. (SPOILER: For me at least, his giving Z the means to kill himself is a hugely satisfying end point. It suggests a middle ground more appealing than the dinner of the title.) The guard simply waits, smoking his life away in the service of the never finished plans of his parents’ generation.
The other significant answer for how to find peace in this novel comes from Prisoner Z, whom, we learn, exceeded the parameters of his secret mission in an attempt to make peace with a Palestinian. The details get a bit blurry, but they turn on his being willing to trust someone, to try to make a human rather than a military connection.
That road fails as well, and he spends the rest of his life as a non-person, underground. It’s one more dimension in which the failures of the last generation limit the prospects of peace in this one.
There is a third approach to something like peace, and it’s where the title comes from. Shira and her Architect love each other across battle lines, and they are willing to seek a middle ground, a theoretically impossible one.
[SPOILER:] As beautiful as the final scene is, where the two of them enjoy a white-cloth meal in a tunnel beneath the battlefield, it comes without quite the build-up of the other possibilities. For most of the novel, Englander is brilliant in the way he bounces backward and forward in time, creating a welcome thriller feel in the way the different chapters of Z’s plot eventually come together.
Shira is a part of that story – though we don’t know it for a long time – but her romance seems to come to the fore too late for full satisfaction. I wish Englander had given us more glimpses of her early so that her love wouldn’t seem quite so out-of-the-blue at the end. I suspect there are scenes I didn’t recognize as hers early on, but it’s the one place I wish Englander had given more. (I’m also not a fan of Z’s Jewish mother – she’s stereotyped in ways that feel a bit lazy for such a gifted writer.)
All in all, this is a powerful look at the grip the last generation still has on today’s Israel. Englander is one of our absolute best short story writers. Here – after a good but not great first novel in The Ministry of Special Cases (also about a prisoner lost in the bureaucracy of a state) – he’s taken another step toward writing the great novel that seems like it’s coming from him.
- Joe Kraus