The Dinner by Herman Koch, translation: Sam Garrett
(Atlantic Books, 2012)
Four people. One dinner. An unavoidable decision. The blurb for Herman Koch’s new novel sounds like a film trailer and the reader is not disappointed. The story of a father wanting the best for his child unfolds like a tightly directed family drama with black edges, in which at every turn a little more of the underlying reality is revealed. How far will the father go to protect his son after he finds out what terrible thing the boy has done? Far, is the answer.
In the most congenial of settings, a sumptuous dinner for two brothers and their wives at a fashionable establishment in the capital, knives are sharpened. They are meeting to discuss what to do about their fifteen-year-old sons, partners in crime. During the diner the dissatisfactions and frustrations that have smouldered for years rise to the surface. Paul Lohman, a history teacher who’s taken early retirement, is full of aggression, both towards the restaurant with its pretentious food and service, and towards his brother, Serge Lohman, the popular politician whose ambition is to become premier of the Netherlands in the forthcoming elections.
Koch’s characters grapple with themselves in finely spun prose,. ‘That was how I saw life sometimes, like a plate of warm food sitting getting cold.’ Comforting and loyal as Paul’s wife initially seems, her true role in this horrifying story turns out in the end to be one of treachery. Brother Serge and his wife have a hidden agenda too. After this dinner – you can hear the film music swell – nothing will ever be the same again. Het diner (The Dinner) is a portrayal of modern mores, exploring a contemporary moral dilemma about honesty and dirty tricks. Koch distils this dilemma into the question of how far, as a parent, you open your eyes to the actions of your child and call him to account. The drama cuts close to the bone.
With The Dinner, which went straight to the top of the Dutch bestseller lists, Koch has hit the right note. His fast, lucid and tart style is perfectly tailored to the story’s telling. As he remarked in an interview about what his novels have in common: ‘If you can manage to capture the exact tone, you really already have the DNA of the whole book.’