A Novel by Herman Koch
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
(2009) 2013 / 304 Pages
Loosely based on the brutal 2005 beating and subsequent murder of a homeless person by three Barcelona teens, Herman Koch’s The Dinner pulls no punches as it explores the darker side of our humanity.
Sadly, we’re seeing this type of behavior occur more and more frequently in today’s society. New Jersey. Liverpool. Wisconsin. The obvious question that immediately springs to mind is why. What makes our young people feel the need to react violently in response to coming face to face with a fellow human being that couldn’t possibly defend themselves from any type of physical attack? Wisely however, Koch isn’t interested in playing up the reader’s sympathy by investigating the why behind the act itself. Instead he’s interested in exploring societies, as well as our own individual responses to the crime.
Transplant the events to Holland, tell them in flashback during a dinner attended by two brothers and their wives at an upscale restaurant, and narrate it through the eyes of one troubled parent. That’s The Dinner’s incredibly straight-forward formula for success, and for the most part it succeeds. The first inkling that something’s not quite right here, that Koch isn’t content to simply tell a tantalizing surface story, and that he wants to challenge the reader to dig within themselves for the answers to some hard questions, comes in the form of the following statement:
I only said that not all victims are automatically innocent victims.
Yeeks. How often have each and everyone one of us wished harm upon another person simply because we didn’t like them? See that guy there that just cut me off in traffic; such an asshole! That one over there is abusive to his wife. Her? She verbally assaults her kids. These people, they all deserve whatever bad shit happens to them. Why? Because _I_ don’t like them. How many times have you heard someone utter the following ironic expression after receiving a piece of bad news about someone that they know: “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person?”
Yet as a society, with the exception perhaps of rape, where sometimes the woman’s sexual history is dragged through the mud in a heinous attempt to discredit her accusations, we never pass judgment on the victim do we? They immediately earn our sympathy for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But not all victims are good people, are they? Does that mean they deserve what’s happened to them? Does there suffering spell someone else’s relief, and therefore is it a good thing that they were hurt? Koch continues questioning, continues pushing the reader as the story continues to unfold, first slowly, then at a breakneck pace:
I was hoping, in fact, that it would blow over, that with the passing of time the interest would fade, that people would be occupied by other, newer news, and that the exploding jerrycan would be erased from their collective memory. A war needed to break out somewhere; a terrorist attack might be even better, plenty of fatalities, lots of civilian casualties over whom people could shake their heads in dismay.
Oh how quick our interests turn in this age of the 24-hour news cycle. What holds our fascination today could quickly evaporate as soon as the next big story breaks. We’re so distracted that we hardly ever follow any story from start to finish. Worse, we rarely learn from our mistakes. One just has to look at the current rash of gun violence in the United States, the government’s response to it, and the population’s lack of unified outrage as an example of how apathetic most of us ultimately become to events that unfold around us each and every day. As a society, does our eventual indifference allow these crimes to continue to happen?
Koch plays up the family angle as well, questioning how a parent would react under these trying circumstances. Would you willing turn your child over to the authorities? Punish them yourselves? Try to shield them from law enforcement? Hinder the investigation? Could you come to a consensus as a family with regards to how you should proceed? How far would you be willing to go if you thought you had the right answer?
Better yet, is there even a right answer to be found when everything about the crime is senseless and wrong?
As a reader you sit down to The Dinner hoping for something light and low on calories. Ultimately what you end up with is one hell of a stomach ache that no amount of chalky pink liquid could ever take away. This story, and the themes underpinning it, is not easy to digest. Nor should it be.
Take a long hard look. Do you like what you see?
The long-awaited translation of Herman Koch’s critically-acclaimed novel The Dinner has finally arrived, and let me say, it is more than satisfying. Told over the course of a single meal between two brothers and their wives, The Dinner portrays a family with many secrets who are at risk of unraveling before the public eye.
Serge Lohman is a powerful Dutch politician. Paul (our narrator) is Serge’s brother whose opinion of Serge is a great deal lower than that of the general public. Paul and his wife Claire haven’t exactly been looking forward to this fancy dinner with Serge and his wife Babette, but there is a matter of grave importance that must be discussed. Both couples have teenage boys who have recently made some very bad decisions – decisions that could alter the course of their public and private lives forever. But when family mixes with politics, things become even more delicate, and the two couples don’t exactly see eye to eye as to how the situation should be handled.
The premise of The Dinner sounds ordinary enough – a dysfunctional family trying to keep up appearances in a high pressure situation. But what makes this novel so extraordinary is the way Koch has organized the narrative. Never before has a single conversation been so engrossing, and as the many courses of the meal are served and consumed, the tension in the dining room continues to elevate. And you may not realize it at first, but under the guise of gourmet food, soft lighting and atmosphere, Koch has slipped in some truly terrifying notions of family, violence, morality, and justice.
And on that note, I must thoroughly congratulate the translator, Sam Garrett. The prose of this novel is dark, witty, and quietly unnerving, and Garrett has flawlessly preserved the sinister ambiance of text. It truly is an impressive piece of literature, and I would like to formally ask Garrett to translate everything Koch has written. Please?
The Dinner is a book that should be savored slowly so you can appreciate every last garnish of tension and mounting unease, but if you’re like me, then you will devour this book in one sitting, feverishly turning pages and hoping that the check never comes.
Bon appetit! Or perhaps I should say smakelijk eten…