The Dinner by Herman Koch
Sam Garrett, tr. New York. Hogarth. 2012. ISBN 9780770437855
Not since watching the film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover has bearing witness to others’ fine dining been so voyeuristically uncomfortable as reading Dutch author Herman Koch’s newly translated novel The Dinner (Het diner, 2010).
The story is centered around a dreaded meal at an unnamed and highly elite restaurant in Amsterdam, in which the narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, are to meet and dine with Paul’s brother, Serge (a famous politician running for prime minister, no less), and his wife, Babette. As the dinner transpires, we learn a great deal about a number of sinister “incidents” that the two couples don’t know how to deal with, and all of it surrounds their adorable (at least their parents think so) and possibly psychotic fifteen-year-old sons. Think Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son. Then prepare to be shocked.
Paul, the narrator, wouldn’t like the comparisons that I’ve made between The Dinner and the aforementioned films. In fact, he would have gritted his teeth at such musings. There is no shortage of criticisms and disdain in the vitriolic thoughts (and some of the dialogue) of Paul. The restaurant is too expensive. It is too elitist. (“Why would anyone point with their pinky? Was that supposed to be chic?”) And his brother is too successful and too pretentious for Paul’s taste; he cannot forget the crude man underneath the façade. (“In every fiber of his being, Serge had remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting.”) There are moments when the narrator is so unlikeable, so full of contempt, that the reading is almost painful. Yet, remarkably, the pages seem to turn themselves.
When the narrator is not spitting venom at nearly everything or everyone around him, he is recounting chilling family stories. But do we trust him? Do we believe in his assessment of the past? Well, yes and no. It’s obvious that he hasn’t always been honest; he admits as much, which makes him an unreliable narrator. But is he completely out of bounds when he points out a tendency for upper-crust society to prize “keeping up appearances” above reckoning with uncomfortable truths? Though wouldn’t that also be a fairly universal problem? The difficulty for the reader (and what makes the novel so interesting and ambiguous) is parsing justifiable critiques from sociopathic paranoia. And it only gets more entangled as the story unfolds.
The Dinner has gained much attention internationally. It has been compared to such works as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; the latter’s praise is emblazoned on the cover. In a country as progressive and polite as Holland, it is curious that the book did so well there. Is it despite, or because of, polite society that the novel is so appealing? That is part of the mystery behind this disturbing new work.
Jason A. Christian
University of Oklahoma