Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

12234107-large>>Published: February 2013

Above all, you saw them laughing. That was the moment when the collective memory came into play. It was the key moment—the laughing boys demanded their place in that collective memory. In the top ten of the collective memory, they came in at number eight, probably right below the Vietnamese colonel summarily executing a Vietcong soldier with a bullet through the head, but perhaps even above the Chinese man with his carrier bags trying to stop the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

And there was something else that played a role. The two boys were wearing knit caps, but they were upper-middle-class boys. They were white. It wasn’t easy to say how you could tell. It was hard to put your finger on it—something about their clothing, their movements. The boys down the street. Not the kind of trash who torch cars in order to start a race riot. Comfortably enough off, well-to-do parents. Boys like the ones we all know. Boys like our nephew. Like our son.


This is what happened. These are the facts.

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner. The first brother is a semi-successful political candidate and minor local celebrity; the second, a history teacher forced into a sort of voluntary early retirement due to a psychological condition implied but never directly described. First, of course, are the gracious hellos and how-are-yous, with a smattering of chatter about the location, what’s good, what isn’t, which new films are masterpieces and which wine should be tasted. Gradually, the conversation changes: the two families, as it turns out, are tied together by blood—the brothers, of course, and the very real blood on the hands of their two teenaged sons.

Serge Lohman, the Dutch politician, his brother Paul, the narrator, and their wives—Babette and Claire, respectively—have come together to solve a problem that if mishandled could tear both families apart. Rick, Serge and Babette’s son, and Michel, Paul and Claire’s son, have done something unforgivable: they’ve taken the life of a homeless woman sleeping in the shelter of an ATM. Sure, they didn’t mean to kill her—maybe they only meant to injure or humiliate her—but she’s dead all the same. Even worse (from the perspective of the two families, anyway), an X-factor in the guise of Beau, Serge and Babette’s adopted son from Burkina Faso, threatens to expose the criminal actions of the two boys.

The Dinner, Herman Koch’s sixth novel, is a study in animalistic behaviour. The novel is divided into the five “acts” of a meal: Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif. From the Apertif it’s clear there exists a great deal of animosity between Paul and Serge. Serge, it is implied (and later made clear), is quite full of him self. He embraces the little bit of local fame he’s acquired in his sharp political ascent like a child with their hand in the candy bowl—always wanting another piece. Though his private family life is never expressly shown, not even in flashback, the reader is given the impression that Serge is an island within his own home. Even his wife Babette seems more in his shadow than not in the novel’s first half.

Contrasted with Serge, who is always acting the part he wishes more than anything to play, Paul is unable to hide the man he is—honest, family-oriented, and dangerously quick to boil. His anger, covered more extensively in the novel’s second half, is reflected in his son. On the surface, the psychological issues at the core of Paul’s anger have cost him his career; diving a little bit deeper, it becomes clear that Paul’s issues and their potentially hereditary nature are of greater importance to the story than possibly anything else.

It’s Claire, however, who is at once the most surprising, interesting, and reprehensible character in the story. It’s her willingness, as a wife and mother, to do damn near anything to keep her family together that provides the novel with its most gripping emotional moments.

My experience with The Dinner was uneven, but ultimately fulfilling. It was difficult, at first, to find a sympathetic foothold with any of the characters. We have two sets of parents, a great deal of behind-the-back bickering, and two children who have not only taken a life, but don’t seem too shaken up about it. What gives them cause for remorse is not what they’ve done, but that they’re being blackmailed by Beau; in an age where children are stupid enough to record their criminal acts with their smart phones, remorse seems like an unfortunate luxury for these two young killers.

As the story progresses, however, the narrative becomes less about what Michel and Rick have done and more about Paul: Paul’s unnamed psychological condition that, had it been caught while he was still in the womb would have warranted an abortion; his violent beating of the principal at Michel’s school; when he attacked his brother years ago for stepping over a line regarding toddler Michel’s care while Claire was in the hospital. Paul is very much the centre of this story—his on-a-dime rage is the star around which everything else orbits, including, possibly, his son’s own violent tendencies.

The five-course structure is effective, though I found myself disappointed, to some degree, by the Main Course—which, as one might expect, makes up the bulk of the novel. The Apertif and Appetizer sections offer—forgive me—a rather delicious setup. The Main Course reveals through extensive flashbacks the reason they’ve gathered at the restaurant, detailing not only the crime itself but also the shared and often tumultuous past between Serge and Paul. This approach to the Main Course also reveals the book’s most obvious shortcoming: the lack of interplay in the here and now. There is of course conversation between the two sets of parents over the dinner table, but it is not extensive; most of the narrative’s meat is handled through flashbacks and non-linear asides, which extinguishes a fair amount of the tension from around the table. It’s likely this is a problem of expectations on my part, but given the fantastic setup and the obvious just-below-the-surface animosity between the two brothers, I’d hoped for perhaps more verbal sparring than I got in the end. It’s an interesting reversal of the norm—more is shown than said, and for once I found myself wishing that things had been different.

However, what’s left unsaid in other areas is to the novel’s benefit. I’m speaking of Claire’s illness, of the finer details of Paul’s mental history, and of the final solution for the situation with Beau. Koch holds back these details to better play to the novel’s emotional strengths, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill these gaps with more uncertainty and nervousness than any amount of detail ever could.

As previously mentioned, if Paul is in many ways the heart of the story’s many problems, Claire offers its most unnerving solution. She takes on the role of a mother lion protecting its young. For most of the evening it feels as if Claire is playing a second hand of cards, working just behind the scenes to help construct an airtight alibi for Michel in case their evening out proves ultimately fruitless. When the lengths she is willing to go to are finally revealed… the slow and subtle way the reader’s perception of her transforms over the course of the novel is disturbing to say the least.

They are, in essence, a family of sociopaths. Claire is the strongest, the most willing to compromise her conscience for her family’s well being. While Paul and Michel are possibly driven to their more animalistic behaviour by their genetics, Claire has made a choice. There’s little doubt by the novel’s end that she would kill if necessary to protect her “pack.” As a result, I found myself at times torn on how to feel. It’s easy to be at least somewhat sympathetic at first for two parents desperately trying to keep their family from falling apart. But as their histories and contingency plans come to light, it’s clear how morally compromised both Paul and Claire have truly become.

The Dinner reminded me from the outset of the Roman Polanski film Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. In the film, two sets of parents come together to settle a schoolyard dispute between their sons. The conversation quickly devolves into insults and name-calling, and we see how quickly even the most seemingly mature, put-together adults can channel their inner brats. Carnage is a deeply sarcastic, slightly cynical look at the childishness and competitiveness of adults, and how that behaviour is so clearly reflected in their offspring. The Dinner, while similar in its on-the-surface conceit, masks childishness with irresponsibility and amorality, and competitiveness with the overwhelming instinct to protect one’s family unit at all costs. While Carnage dabbles in cynicism, The Dinner swims in it. It’s difficult by the end to want anything but pain and misfortune to befall Paul and his family for the lengths they are willing to go in order to protect the two children from being found out—because it was only one homeless woman, right? No need to throw away another pair of lives when just one has been taken. And Beau? He’s expendable—after all, he’s not blood, not really.

The Dinner is a case study in zero accountability. Perhaps the most damning example of Paul and Claire’s moral grounding (or lack thereof) is that it’s Serge, the politician, who offers the most moral, responsible solution of the night. Yes, it is absolutely self-serving and he is in turn willing to throw his child to the wolves (and most likely put the first and final nails in the coffin of his own career), but it is still the right thing to do. And his solution is fought tooth and nail by those wanting to protect the pack at all costs.