Exactly one day after my new novel, "Dinner at the Center of the Earth," came out, I came face to face with a woman telling me that one of the murdered boys in the story was her cousin. I'd just spent years inside my noggin, maneuvering through the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there I was, blinking in the sunlight, trying to grapple with someone's read, not of the book, but of me. Together, we were going to tackle the question of exactly where my heart was while writing.
I took a deep breath, waiting to see if I was in for a moment of shared intimacy or a very public denunciation.
As for caring deeply about a stranger's judgment, it really does matter to me. Not just because I'm overly sensitive and take to my fainting couch at the slightest of artistic slights. It's that I've always considered fiction writing a moral act, believing that the writer's sense of right and wrong is what informs that of the work. If one strives to build something real and true, it would have to be, as John Gardner said, "by its nature moral." It would need to "explore open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach," and inevitably must, as with a chemist's experiment in the lab — to use his metaphor — test values.
In fictionalizing my life in Jerusalem during the peace process years, in engaging with my despair over a lost opportunity and my hope for an impossible new start, I wanted nothing more than for people to enter into the conversation through the novel and to reflect. I wanted them to think about how they think.
I'd previously published an allegory about the occupation of the West Bank called "Sister Hills" that, to my surprise, functioned as a Rorschach test. Readers often saw in it the narrative they wanted, which forced me to think about how intent and interpretation function and shaped the composition of "Dinner at the Center of the Earth." When I set to work, I was actively aware of two personal obligations.
The first, relating to my own moral compass, was an admittedly weird, conscious belief that I should wish, with all my heart, that the book would hit the stands as a work of historical fiction. That I would discover I'd missed the moment and penned an account of a time grippingly bygone. How nice it would be to wake up on publication day and discover that Jared Kushner had mended an age-old hatred, leaving me with bupkis to talk about on NPR?
The second obligation relates to the dissociated self, the unconscious well from which — however syrupy it sounds — fiction bubbles out. As much as imagination could be directed, as much as I might aim it some way, I recognized that my responsibility, in a Schrödinger's cat manner, was not to present two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to write with an awareness of the two different realities it comprises.
I'd moved to Jerusalem in 1996, so excited to be part of the peace process, to contribute to that brand-new day. I returned to New York in 2001 during the height of the Second Intifada. Along with the heartbreak that I brought back to America with me, and an optimistic pessimism that still drives a sort of promise, I returned with an understanding of the challenge to ending the conflict itself.
Peace was not being brokered between two parties with two differing positions on an issue. The Israelis and the Palestinians were two peoples who, while sharing the same physical space, weren't even inhabiting the same realm.
As a Jew, I spent those five years living in the city of Jerusalem, whose cherished holy site is the Temple Mount. My Palestinian neighbors, walking the same streets, breathing the same air, were living in al-Quds, whose great holy site, on the very same hilltop, is Haram al-Sharif. It's like bumping into a friend in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, only to discover that she's crossing the Golden Gate. The empathy that bridging those bridges demands goes far beyond accepting a different opinion or viewpoint. It's about finding a way to span worlds.
It's that insight that guided me through the spiraling structure of my novel, that had me build a book with the possibly halcyon objective of being sideless. I wanted, as an author, to deliver what is most important to me as a reader: a narrative that grapples with the questions, through character and story, without being didactic or polemical.
That attempt to set my heart in the right place during writing is what allows me, on the road, to wear that same heart on my sleeve. So when I'm asked from one side of the age-old feud to relinquish my right to live in Israel according to the Law of Return, or, from the other, to somehow lessen Ariel Sharon's link to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, I can state that my intent was not to advocate but to invite readers to consider why they see what they see.
As for what was shared with that reader — related to one of the innocent victims remembered in my novel — it's a moment that I keep for myself. I will tell you that in a book whose main goal was to explore empathy, that stranger kindly gave me the benefit of the doubt, assuming my humanity, as I assumed hers. In this reality and the other, that is all I was after, after all.
Nathan Englander is the author of "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," "The Ministry of Special Cases," "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" and, most recently, the novel "Dinner at the Center of the Earth."
By Nathan Englander
Knopf. 272 pp. $26.95