The Dinner, by Herman Koch
Reviewed by Rima Walker
This prize-winning, odd, dark little book that takes place in Holland has taken Europe by storm and has been published in 25 countries. It raises many questions to which the reader wants answers, but many of those answers are not forthcoming until near the end of the book. Two couples, ordinary-seeming on the surface, go to dinner together. Paul and Serge, are brothers, the two women, Claire and Babette, married to them. The couples have 15-year old sons who hang around together; Serge and Babette also have an adopted African son who plays his role to bitter consequences in a few short pages long into the book.
What could be nicer than to have a wonderful dinner in an upscale Amsterdam restaurant? And as the reader quickly perceives, the book is divided into chapters that correspond to each course, from aperitif to dessert. As each course follows, one after the other, painstakingly described by a very officious waiter, we learn more and more about the two brothers, their wives, the relationships between the husbands and wives, and their relationships with their sons. But as each course goes by, all of them narrated by Paul, we come to realize that not all is well here that has something to do with their sons–and it becomes obvious that the main purpose of the dinner is to discuss what that something is and what to do about it.
The burning question is what is that something. But other questions arise as well, some important and some seemingly trivial. Why does Babette cry so much at the table? Why is there so much small talk that finally culminates in the main purpose of this meeting, once we realize that having a pleasant dinner together is not what is on the menu? Why does Paul seem to get stranger and stranger as each course comes and goes and we have access to his thoughts, attitudes, and feelings, revealing himself to us as a not very nice person? Why are none of these characters, including the boys, not very nice bordering on being downright awful? Why have the sons done something horrifying, justifying the act to themselves, and how did they come to be the kind of persons they are? Why do the parents react the way they do about their children’s horrendous act? And why is that waiter sticking his little finger out as he bends over the plates too close to the food as he scrupulously and annoyingly verbally dissects each course?
Aside from being about relationships of all kinds, particularly that of parents and offspring, the book primarily discusses morality, both personal and how we attempt to teach it, or not, to the ones for whom we are responsible. And if they mis-step, what do parents do about it, especially when their children attempt to deflect the act by blaming others for it. As for the waiter? He seems superfluous, but authors have a reason for what they write. Everything that happens in a novel has a purpose, especially if it is repeated several times. I believe he is there for a bit of black humor to offset what we come to know; how seriously terrible are the couples and their children. The waiter’s need to make something ordinary into something very overblown and important is a wry comment by the author to contrast with the true burden the couples bring to the table—as they try to make something very important seem inconsequential.
In a short book, Koch has delineated four complete, terrible, albeit very human personalities and deals with major universal themes—love, morality, responsibility, betrayal–written in spare, unembellished prose. It’s nearly impossible to like these people, especially Paul, yet I was riveted right up until the ending that explains why they think and act as they do and plan to act, Paul in particular, although the others are not far behind. Koch also has a reason for making Paul a teacher with influence over his many students as well as his small family. Paul is an unreliable narrator and his secret is not revealed until nearly the end of the novel. If the couples are representative of a complacent middle class that believes their lives will run smoothly, then what happens at dinner reflects their reactions when they stutter over how to proceed in the face of the horror they have to deal with, showing how they lack morality, responsibility, and accountability. Serge is running for a political office. Would you vote for him? The only human reaction they all share is how they can protect their children. What would you do? ~