The Dinner – Herman Koch

The Dinner – Herman Koch

Book review of The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner begins with a classic set up scene – two sets of parents meeting in a restaurant to sort out serious problems with their two sons.  I was reminded of the film Carnage in which Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster and their respective screen spouses meet to discuss a playground fight, but this story is much, much darker than that, and even more entertaining.

If anything its more similar to The Slap than to Carnage but its far more sophisticated than Christos Tsoiklas’s book and draws the reader into a complex web of dark secrets and hidden motives.

The two fathers, Paul and Serge Lohman are brothers.  Paul narrates the story, revealing a troubled history with his brother, a prominent politician who stands a good chance of becoming the next Prime Minister.  Paul has grown to dislike his brother intensely, particularly his pretentiousness, his self-regard and his obvious enjoyment of his celebrity.

As with all hatreds, it ends up manifesting itself in trivial annoyances: Paul loathes the way his bother shovels his food into his mouth, his name-dropping and his endless boasting about his house in the Dordogne.  

But then Paul’s contempt is sharpened by his own situation – he was a teacher but has been placed on the “inactive” list after a series of at first unspecified events. As the story unfolds, Paul gradually reveals a shocking history of his own which makes him a dubious narrator of the events the two couples have come to discuss.

As a reader I was drawn into this unfolding narrative with a huge sense of curiosity.  Herman Koch dangles tit-bits of information before you, hinting at scandalous revelations to come. Paul seems to assume that the people he is telling his story to know the background he talks about and you just have to wait for the fill-ins which bring you up to speed – they always come however and lead you on to the next one with ever more rapidly turning pages.

Paul has an interesting some interesting thoughts in any case which held my interest despite the initial lack of knowledge of what was going to happen –

A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell, the actual evening is hell itself. It starts in front of the mirror in the morning: what you’re going to wear, and whether or not you’re going to shave. At times like these, after all, everything is a statement, a pair of torn and stained jeans as much as a neatly ironed shirt.

If you don’t scrape off the day’s stubble, you were too lazy to shave; two days’ beard immediately makes them wonder whether this is some new look; three days or more is just a step from total dissolution. ‘Are you feeling all right?

You’re not sick, are you?’ No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking – in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1–0.

Paul is a man with a whole set of resentments about his current career predicament and he can hardly tolerate his brother’s success.  Unfortunately for Paul, it turns out to be his own son who provided the first indication that things were seriously wrong between the two boys.  

While his son was outside repairing a tyre, he wanders into his son’s bedroom and almost mindlessly picks up his phone and finds himself looking at the videos.  What he find there fills him with horror, but as he hears his son coming up the stairs he snaps the phone shut and pretends he was just in the bedroom looking for his son.

It turns out that the cousins are both in deep trouble and the parent have to meet to find a way through it.  Because Serge is a well-known politician, the matter could be complicated by issues of the public scandal which could arise.  Paul has less investment in his reputation but as the evening progresses we discover that he has some serious issues of his own which need dealing with.

I would ruin the book for readers if I were to write more about the plot. All I will say is that Herman Koch is very skilled at dripping new layers into the plot like a leaking tap.  By the end of the book, huge issues have been raised about morality, parental responsibility for children, the relative worth of individuals, the purpose or need for punishment.  

I was very impressed by the ground covered yet also aware that I was reading a book by a master story-teller who unfolds his plot so skilfully through the voice of such a damaged individual as Paul Lohan.

Early in the book Paul tells us

It’s like a pistol in a stage play: when someone waves a pistol during the first act, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama. The law that says no pistol must appear if no one’s going to fire.

The Dinner is a good example of that principle.  When you start the book you know that bad things are going to happen and although it might not be a pistol that’s waved in the first act the initial set-up certainly fulfils its early promise.

The Dinner is Dutch author Herman Koch’s sixth novel and has already won the prestigious Publieksprijs Prize in 2009.  I look forward to more English translations of his work.