I finished the Dinner by Herman Koch and have been trying to come to grips with the fact that I really liked the book, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. I really wish I had been handed the book with a brown paper cover and had known nothing about it going in. So with that in mind, this review won’t necessarily contain traditional spoilers, but if you might read this book before hearing anything about it, don’t read this post and ruin that potential experience for yourself.
This book is about two couples who meet for dinner at a fashionable restaurant. The story, and the book itself, is divided into parts that correspond to the courses of the meal. The story behind the meeting is revealed incrementally as the dinner progresses: an apertif to whet your appetite, an appetizer to give you a taste of the story to come, the main course where the proverbial elephant in the room is exposed, the dessert which sugar coats the future, and the digestif which wraps it up but still leaves you will a full belly to digest.
The couples’ teen-aged sons are friends and together they commit a violent act that is under police investigation. Each parent is trying to come to grips with how their son’s actions will alter the future of their family and exactly how much they should risk to protect their child and themselves.
The book is described as a ‘psychological thriller’, ‘a European Gone Girl’ (it takes place in Amsterdam), ‘chilling, nasty, smart, shocking.’ Here’s the thing: mostly, I thought it was funny. I feel like such a bad person. I feel like I should be outraged or morally conflicted or indignant or shocked, but I was just immensely entertained.
The two fathers, Serge and Paul, are also brothers. Serge is a prominent politician. Paul, the narrator of the story, is a teacher. As the story progresses, we learn that he has a history of violent behavior and was actually asked to resign his teaching position years ago. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Where’s the funny entertainment?”
It’s all in the writing. What first got me was the sibling rivalry between the brothers. Paul is in a constant state of trying to prove to himself that he is as good or better than his older brother. Then Koch rips into the pretentiousness of the rich and famous, and especially the restaurants that cater to them. And the fact that Serge is not only famous, but also a politico, adds another level to the satire. It was lines like this that kept me smiling:
It was sort of like certain designer glasses, glasses that add nothing to the personality of the person wearing them. On the contrary, they draw attention first and foremost to themselves: I am a pair of glasses, and don’t you forget it!
“He’s from Holland,” they would say – or perhaps only thing to themselves, which was even worse. That sense of vicarious shame was a constant. Our being ashamed of our prime ministers was the only feeling that created a seamless connection between one Dutch administration and the next.
This tone is constant throughout the book; it is the same in the lighter inconsequential moments and in the revelations of the darkest aspects of the story.
I usually shy away from entertainment that is dark and violent. For example, I’ve never had a desire to watch the movie Kill Bill. This morning I asked the husband if Kill Bill was funny, or if it was just violent. He said that maybe there were two or three funny bits, but mostly it was just violent. So I asked him why he liked it so much then. (He’s not averse to violence in film, but I know there would have to be something more to it for him to really enjoy it.) He said it’s because it was so stylized, the movie-making craft was so good. I guess that’s why I enjoyed the dinner. The darkness of the story itself is in the shadow of the terrific writing and unique format of the book.