The Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
The Dinner by Herman Koch struck me as an interesting read. The premise of the entire novel unfolds over one dinner and I was intrigued at the prospect of 40 chapters (albeit short ones) based on one evening. Of course I was also interested by the idea of the setting being in Amsterdam—all Dutch people are drawn inexplicably to their “homeland”, a common thread that binds us together along with a love of salty licorice.
At first it seemed to have a good tempo. The narrative is told through Paul Lohman, the brother of a cabinet member and potential Prime Minister Serge Lohman. Paul’s wife Claire and Serge’s wife Babette are also players in a novel that I feel would be well translated to stage.
Immediately the reader realizes that “I”/Paul has some deep rooted enmity/issues with Serge. There is never an explanation of why Paul feels this way or when it started, but it’s very clear that his feelings are quite strong. He describes, for example, the way Serge eats greedily without thinking of those around him. The adjectives used are downright malicious and cringe-inducing.
Eventually it all comes to light: they are gathered together to discuss the issue of their sons Rick and Michel, cousins who have gotten themselves into a huge hole. After spending a night drinking, they go to an ATM to take out money and end up hurting and killing a homeless woman in a gruesome fashion.
They are caught on the bank cameras, although their faces are not identifiable. Paul immediately recognizes his son Michel and then describes how he has carried around the weight of that secret, keeping it even from his wife.
Serge and Babette has recognized their son Rick on the video as well: it is being broadcast on repeat through all the news stations with a plea for anyone with any information to call in. Both parents have met to discuss the future of their children and what to do.
For me, the most interesting part of the book was the amusing descriptions of the food the party was served. In a highly posh restaurant with a deprecating waiter and a 400 euro bill, Paul is sickened by the lack of quality of overpriced and constantly refers to an unnamed casual bar across the street where he would much rather be eating.
Then as the novel progressed, I started to realize that Paul was probably, in fact, a somewhat psychopathic person himself and had transferred his rage fits to his son. It was no surprise that Michel initiated a murderous and unwarranted attack on a homeless person. Claire even attempts to justify the attack, saying that homeless people should not be sleeping in ATMs, blocking the way for those intending to use it.
In its entirety, this book is sickening. Paul on several occasions violently attacks people, including his brother and the principal of Michel’s school. He retires from being a teacher because he keeps saying completely inappropriate things to his students. He encourages his son to believe in things like: police shooting and killing offenders without giving them a court trial.
In summation: Paul teaches his son, directly and indirectly, that is completely alright to take justice into one’s own hands—justice that isn’t even justice, but simply merciless physical execution of one’s desires to do physical harm to someone.
Also sickening is the fact that this couple has raised a monstrous child who sees no repercussions of his behaviour. It does yield a certain moral dilemma: if your child broke the law, would you turn them in for punishment? However, there’s a difference between your child stealing a pack of gum and murdering a homeless person, whether manslaughter or not.
There are more upsetting/disturbing elements to this novel, but I won’t delve into them, because frankly: it’s not worth the time or effort. Give this novel a pass. Unless you enjoy pointless stories that illustrate how completely and irreversibly messed up our society is.
1/ 5 stars.
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