Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)
2012 (originally 2009), 309p
Read from my TBR pile
Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are about to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Serge is a politician, the leader of the opposition party and strongly tipped to win the up and coming election and become Prime Minister. Paul, by contrast, is a high school teacher on leave and the two brothers have very different lifestyles.
Serge has picked the restaurant, a place where it normally requires waiting 3 months to get a table. However they ‘know Serge there’ and Paul knows that the evening will be a strain – the food will consist of small serves, overly described ingredients and be overpriced. Serge will be boorish and Paul will have to rein in his temper.
But he cannot get out of the dinner.
Paul, Claire, Serge and Babette are meeting to discuss the fact that their two sons have been captured on a security camera doing something that could utterly ruin not only their bright futures, but also the futures of their parents, including the one tipped to be the next Prime Minister.
The Dinner is a critically acclaimed Dutch novel which was published in the original language in 2009 and has now been translated into 21 different languages. In the beginning we meet Paul, our narrator who comes across as a simple middle-class family man, married to Claire and father of a teenage boy named Michel. Paul is on his way to dinner with his brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette. In contrast, Serge is wealthy, successful and arrogant – he and Paul seem to not particularly get along beneath a surface of thinly constructed civility. Paul is not looking forward to the evening, but he knows that there are things the four of them must discuss in order to prevent the ruin of their two teenage boys.
The Dinner is a masterfully crafted novel that strips away every thought and opinion you might form about the four characters that meet for dinner. You begin expecting something from one side, only to be forcefully shot down. This is a novel of morally bankrupt parents, willing to turn a blind eye (actually, willing to force others to turn a blind eye) to the heinous act their two sons have committed.
I have to say, I think what the boys are captured on camera doing turned out to be the biggest surprise of the novel. I had a few ideas going in, but nothing like what it actually was that they were doing. The idea that teenage boys could do this and find it acceptable and go out and do it again is horrifying but what really stood out as being horrifying to me were the fact that parents, role models, those responsible for raising citizens to determine the difference between right and wrong, were also going to sweep this under the rug. Even though they continued doing it, to some degree. I’m a parent of two boys, although they’re only 4 and 1 presently and the idea that they might ever do something like this makes me, quite honestly, sick. I could never cover it up, I could never allow them to think that it was okay, that what they did was alright because it was deserved. That kind of justification goes way beyond any parent’s right to protect their children, because these boys were not children. They are on the cusp of adulthood, old enough to distinguish right from wrong, old enough to fully grasp what they were doing.
But as the story unfolds, the reader begins to learn more of Paul and what lies behind the facade of patiently kind middle-class man. The anger, the issues, the strangeness. The jealousy he has towards his brother Serge leads you to expect a certain result when it seems like Serge isn’t going to tow the cover-up line and the fact that Paul wasn’t the one who took it upon themselves to ‘force’ Serge into agreement with how to handle things, is all the more shocking. In fact I think this book never stopped shocking me, from beginning to end. What’s even more interesting is the juxtaposition between the shocking events being revealed in the narrative by Paul and occasionally, through the conversation of the others, with the mundane setting that they are in. An expensive, exclusive restaurant where the head waiter describes each meal for each course in exquisite detail, descriptions for organic herbs and the like breaking up the setting the scene where you find out what the teenagers did and how the parents found out about it and also about Paul’s past.
The Dinner is a gripping story with some truly deeply disturbing characters that are even more unsettling by their banal simplicity. Paul and Claire could be anyone you know, could be anyone that you’re friends with. I couldn’t put this book down and had to read it in one sitting.
Book #254 of 2012