The Dinner by Herman Koch translated by Sam Garrett

Rating : 4/5

Publishing Date : 2009

Publisher : Ambo Anthos/ Atlantic Books

Genre : Thriller

 

Reading Dear Mr. M had piqued my interest in the novels of Herman Koch and so I added The Dinner and Summer House with a Pool to my reading list. Koch’s novels are characterized by his deft navigation of plots which can turn from mundane to macabre at the drop of a hat. The Dinner was no different. If I had not read the blurb I would have been misled into thinking The Dinner was all about a “dinner” as it is with such painstaking meticulousness that Koch describes a dinner in an elite restaurant. However, if there is anything Dear Mr. M has taught me, it is to always expect the unexpected beneath the banal conversation. The unexpected did happen in The Dinner and it was way beyond my imagination!

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Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are having dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Serge is a popular politician who is even touted to be the next Prime Minister. Through the polite conversation touching upon food, vacation and other banalities there is an undercurrent of tension between the brothers. Both the couples have a 15 years old son each. Together, the boys have committed an act that has been broadcasted over national television shocking the viewers and triggering a police investigation. Will each parent stand up for their child or will they come to a joint decision regarding the boys’ future?

Narrated from the point of view of Paul Lohman, the novel starts with a dreary task for Paul and Claire – to attend an unpleasant dinner with Paul’s brother Serge. Koch makes the readers sympathetic to the plight of the protagonist as I think everyone out there would have attended their fare shares of boring dinners just to keep up appearances.  The narrator then quotes a line from Anna Karenina –

  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This raises questions about the state of the marriage of Paul and Claire. The protagonist couple do seem more than happy in each other’s presence unlike many other long running marriages. This creates a fondness for the couple in the heart of the readers. However, retrospectively, I feel Herman Koch is like an experienced chess player lining up his pieces to confound the opponent with a false sense of success.  Progressing further into the novel, Koch reveals minor cracks in the perfect family façade that leaves the readers with a tinge of doubt if everything is as simple as it looks.  Then comes the final move where the author pulls the rug from under the unsuspecting readers with a flourish to shatter the faith in the protagonists. From that point onward, the readers know that they can expect anything to happen and the novel has ceased to be normal in any sense.  And, that is why you read Herman Koch!

The writing in this novel is darkly humorous and satirical.  How Paul describes the pretentious settings, overpriced food and the snobbish behavior of the staff in the restaurant is wildly hilarious.  Owing to this, the intricately detailed write-up of every single course of the meal manages to keep the readers entertained. However, underneath this humor lurks something very unpleasant that the readers can clearly decipher – prolonged eye-contacts and various passive aggressive remarks between the guests. As the night progresses the writing loses it languid banality and reflects an urgency that is also clearly visible in the behavior of the characters. Through the pace of the narration and the style of writing, Koch makes the readers brace for an imminent disaster. The character descriptions are also very interesting as the readers are given a window to look at through the eyes of Paul. However, as more details get revealed and we slowly get to know Paul better, we need to reassess each of the characters and the impressions they made on us as Paul himself turns out to be unreliable. Anyway, one thing is for sure that there are only slim chances for the readers to identify with any of the characters in the novel. I felt that the character of Claire was comparatively better than the rest of the characters but it can be a biased outlook of Paul towards his wife.

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Herman Koch (PC – Vrij Nederland)

The plot, although centered on a few incidents, has a deeper message for the readers. It shows the influence the actions of a parent can have on a child at an impressionable age. Various actions which Paul’s son does in his troubled teenage does have its roots on Paul’s behavior in the past. It also highlights the impact of timely intervention and the correct guidance from parents or the lack of it thereof can help mold a child’s personality.  The novel shows how far a parent can go to protect their child from harm and how a parent can turn a blind eye to the all-too-obvious faults of a child. Some sections of the novel really enraged me with its unacceptable although somewhat realistic portrayal of parental guidance.

Overall, a book that can make you think, enjoy and sweep you off your feet. This book can be read by fans of psychological thrillers thanks to its sound plot and impeccable writing.

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