Monday 15 April 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Originally written in Dutch, The Dinner has been translated for the English market and was published by Atlantic Books in August 2012.

There is nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters in The Dinner - not one of them, not even the waiters in the restaurant where the story plays out.    Two couples meet for dinner in an expensive, upmarket restaurant.  The story is narrated by Paul, and at first it seems that he and his wife Claire are the more reasonable couple.  They seem pretty average, married with a 15-year-old son.  The other couple; Serge and Babette are glamorous, rich and well-known, it was Serge who was able to get a table in the restaurant at short notice, it is Serge that the other diners try not to stare at.  It soon becomes clear that Paul and Serge are brothers and that throughout their lives, Serge has been the one who shone brightest.

At first the reader empathises with Paul.  How annoying to be the brother of someone who puts on all of these airs and graces, who considers himself to be just that bit better than others.   It doesn't take long though before Paul's true character comes to the fore.  He's not quite the nice guy that he'd like everyone to believe.  There are flashes of violence and aggression in there, although he does his best to reign this in.

The real reason for this dinner soon becomes apparent.  Their children have committed a terrible act and these adults must decide how this will be dealt with.   The reader learns more about the background to this family through a series of recollections, phone-calls and secret meetings in the garden of the restaurant.  The more that is learnt, the more I began to dislike this family very much.

This is a cleverly written story that does engage the reader, but for me it lacked something essential.  I couldn't believe in it.  I couldn't believe that four adults would plot and scheme to protect children that had done something so terrible.  Paul is a deeply flawed character and it is clear that those flaws have been inherited by his son Michel.   Michel seems to care very little about what he has done, although this is not surprising as his father relates his own tales of violence with very little emotion.

The Dinner is the perfect choice for a reading group with much to debate and discuss.  It is an easy read, and at times it is a distressing read.  The author is skilled at creating character and tension.

Herman Koch, born in 1953, is a Dutch writer. He was a renowned television actor on the series Jiskefet and a former columnist for the newspaper VolkskrantThe Dinneris his sixth novel and has already won the prestigious Publieksprijs Prize in 2009. Herman Koch currently lives in Amsterdam.

1 comment:

  1. Recently read this one, set in Amsterdam (though it isn't hugely evocative of location) and concur with what you have written. A real brooding sense comes off the pages.