The Dinner by Herman Koch
Recently I’ve felt that everything I’ve been reading has been too similar – historical fiction, or mystery novels set in Great Britain in the post Second World War years. So when I saw a review for The Dinner by Herman Koch that started by suggesting the reader not read the review – just read the book, I did. Published in the Netherlands 4 years ago The Dinner has been a bestselling novel throughout Europe. Now translated into English it has hit the New York Times bestseller lists.
I started reading The Dinner two nights ago – read the first chapter, Aperitif. Read The Main Course the next night, staying up later than was sensible, stopping only because I was already so beyond getting my eight hours that I had to sleep. And, because I was so disturbed by the end of The Main Course I was nor sure I wanted to know what was for dessert – I did know it was not something I wanted to read before going to sleep at night.
So, I brought the book to work with me the next day. I started to read mid-afternoon – on one of those life affirming sunny winter days that make you feel that spring will come and that life is good. I needed to feel that way to keep reading this book. You might think that dinner and The Dinner could be over after dessert - and it is for a couple of the characters in this novel but two others choose to have an espresso and grappa – so we read on through the Digestif.
I found The Dinner to be one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It begins innocently enough, although there is a sense that something unhappy and worrisome is happening to this family – but I had no idea it would be as dreadful as it turns out to be.
We first meet Paul Lohman and his wife Claire, and their 15 year old son Michel. Paul and Claire are meeting Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife Babette, for dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant. Serge and Babette’s son, Rick also 15, and the son they adopted in Africa, Beau, are not with them – but these boys are the reason the parents are meeting.
The scene in the restaurant is much like one I experienced on my first night in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. The arrogant, patronizing, argumentative waiter, the over priced “cuisine”, the “house” aperitif scam, the service so slow we were falling asleep in our plates begging for our main course, threatening to leave if it was not served immediately, after waiting, no exaggeration, well over an hour after finishing our appetizer. Not the fine dining experience we expected. But, perhaps not so rare in Amsterdam. And all of this a much needed distraction for the reader from the issue these characters are dealing with.
The family dynamics between these characters – the two brothers, one a successful high profile politician, welcomed at the best restaurants, expected to win the next presidential election, and the other an unemployed former school teacher with “anger management” issues. Sisters-in-law, sons who are cousins - an ordinary family - that when faced with a very serious challenge behaves in much the way one might expect. Maybe. Is this why I felt such discomfort? As a reader I dreaded what was going to come next – and having finished the book I am still feeling discomfort about the questions raised in this novel about morality and immorality, the power of love in a marriage and for one's children. Is it, a “what would I do in the same situation?” discomfort. Would most of us have behaved differently?
The Dinner is neither a murder mystery nor a work of historical fiction – it was a challenge – maybe more of a “stretch” than I was looking for. It was also beautifully written and plotted – there were enough moments of “comic relief” to provide some respite from the tension I was feeling most of the time I was reading this book. It’s a brilliant book really – now I can read the reviews I clipped but did not read – and you can decide for yourself if you want to read it – or not.
I will say that I had such mixed feelings as I was reading, I wondered if anyone else would want to read The Dinner . But, several weeks later it has stayed with me and the more I think about it, the more I think this novel raises important questions, and combined with the strength of the writing itself, I understand why so many of us have read and written about The Dinner.