(If you plan to read The Dinner and you hate any kind of spoiler, walk on by. But if you don’t mind knowing a little, read on.)
A week or so ago, I got bent out of shape by the ending of Jo Nesbo’s The Phantom (115journals.com -Is this the end of Harry Hole?) This week it’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which has recently been translated from Dutch and published in English and has, from all reports, become a runaway best seller. In the first case, my reaction arose out of affection. Not so, with The Dinner.
The newspapers I get were coy in their reviews. One review in the National Post, recommended that potential readers should read nothing about the book, not even that review. Apparently, there was a surprise that we should not spoil. As I later found out other reviewers were more straight-forward, even allowing that Koch was true to his usual depiction of humanity. I wish I had read them first or had some prior knowledge of Koch’s other work. What I wanted badly when I finished was someone to talk to about the book. So far, I haven’t found anyone.
You’re it, I guess.
A reviewer for the Toronto Star called the narrator, Paul Lohman, “fairly reliable”. Excuse me? It is true that initially, I assumed the narrator and I had some opinions in common, a distaste for contemporary food pornography for one. The novel’s action is set in an upscale Amsterdam restaurant and each section is titled after a dinner course, ‘Aperitif’, ‘Appetizer’, all the way to ‘Digestif’. Reviews tend to quote the same sentence to illustrate what Paul (and I/we) disdain: the maitre d’ points with a bent pinkie finger and says, “The lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket…the sun dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.” (Alan Preston: The Observer) Makes you remember when your mother told you about the little children starving in China. In spite of the initial “civilized” opinions with which the reader can agree, it soon becomes evident that Paul is not as he portrays himself. As a history teacher, he has been placed on the non-active list. And, under stress, he is not to be trusted around a burning pan.
Two couples, Paul and his wife, Claire, and his brother, Serge and his wife, Babette, have met for dinner to discuss an extremely serious family matter. The only reason they have been able to get a last minute table at this exclusive restaurant is that Serge is a political rock star, about to be elected prime minister. According to Paul, Serge is a hypocrite, an egotist, a man without taste in food or holiday home. Certainly it would appear that Serge has used very bad judgement in locating this sensitive discussion in such a public venue, but I suppose, both families are trying to avoid their 15 year-old sons who are the subject of the discussion. A first person narrator requires the reader to agree to see events through that narrator’s eyes and this gets creepier and creepier as the novel moves on.
Suppose you are a parent. Suppose your child has done something morally wrong. How do you handle it? Do you consider your primary loyalty to lie with your family unit or do you take the wider human family into account? Do you consider the impact on your child’s future education and career or do you consider it necessary to right a wrong?
Once upon a time, my 7 year-old son pocketed his friend’s dinky toy at show-and-tell. He showed it to me saying his friend had given it to him. I questioned the culprit briefly and marched him to his friend’s door where son returned the toy and said sorry. I didn’t even wait to ask Dad his opinion. In my opinion, that was my son’s education. But of course, I am not labouring under Paul’s difficulty, an unnamed genetically caused anger-management issue. A number of reviewers thought that weakened Koch’s examination of our present day tendency to violence.
So what am I saying? Am I disgruntled that a whole book is taken up with a fruitless discussion of the sort of problem I think most parents would resolve in a heartbeat? Well, even I might have needed a few heartbeats given the viciousness of this deed. But what kind of people handle things as Paul and Claire do in the end? Is this what we have become?
Serge has his own idea with which the other three do not agree. While it is indeed better, he might have been more persuasive – he is a politician after all – and he pays a terrible price. Let’s just say that this is the last time he will get a table at this swanky restaurant and that will be the least of his problems. There is no nemesis, no natural justice, no neatly tied up ends in The Dinner. The female of the species turns out to be more monstrous than the male and their 15 year-old son is bound to become a monster of an entirely different order.
I need to note that I felt compassion as I made my 7 year-old return the purloined toy. It was humiliating for him. But one of his best qualities now is his integrity.
For an update about the movie see http://115journals.com/2013/09/16/guess-what-came-up-at-dinner-update-on-kochs-the-dinner/