The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner
Herman Koch
Text Publishing

As I often say to customers in the bookshop where I work, there are a lot of really great novels being translated into English at the moment.  Diego Marani, whose novel New Finnish Grammar went so global that when the Guardian reviewed it, they put it down to genius.  Jonas Jonasson's The 100 Year old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared- a best seller pretty much everywhere you go in Perth.

And then there's Herman Koch's The Dinner.

From the Blurb:

"On a summer evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner.  At first, the conversation is a gentle hum of polite small talk- the banality of work, the latest movies they've seen.  But beyond the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen year old son.  The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act- an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated world of their families.  When the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children.  As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

My Review

The knives are being sharpened? Really?

I wonder which knives those would be, Mr Blurb Writer Man- would they perhaps be the knives of describing people in extremely unflattering although perhaps warranted terms?  Because not a single character in this book is likeable.  There's Serge, the smarmy politician whose life is ruled by Maslo's Hierarchy of Needs; his fat and designer-label snobbish wife Babette (In my mind she looks like Miss Piggy in Dior); Paul, the judgemental prick with anger issues who is unable to respect his son's privacy; Michel, the sadistic, trend-enslaved like shit who doesn't deserve to have his privacy respected; Rick, his cousin who is so 2D he's not even worth remembering; Beau, an adopted African blackmailer; and Claire, who seems nice and normal at first but then OH YEAH, savages her brother in law with a wine glass to keep him from outing her son as a murderer.

You read all that right.

I hated every single character in this book.  They were either so boring I forgot their names a lot, or a shining example of everything that is wrong with the general public.  And not even in an amusing holding a mirror up to life kind of way.  And the whole book was about their boring lives.

Sure it was well written- Koch has a talent for turning a phrase, or capturing, say, the way you feel about that cafe that you go to.  You don't own it, but it's yours.  I honestly could not put the book down, and while I was reading it at first, I was loving it.  It was only when I closed the cover that last time that I realised how angry the book had made me.

But when you take a whole bunch of basically loathsome characters, let them do terrible things and then let them get away with most of it, you're going to see some reader backlash, let me tell you.  The legal system may not be perfect in most places, but you still can't get away with cutting someone's face up in public without going to jail.

And what about the pacing of the book?  Ostensibly, the whole story takes place between the courses of a single meal, but in actual fact, the story is pepper with long flashback scenes that get more and more disturbing as time goes on.  A lot of key information is related through these scenes, but some of it perhaps too late.  You don't learn until the second part of the story that Paul taught history, or that he has a major psychological anger problem, and you don't learn what Michel and Rick (and Beau) did until quite late, and then you hang around waiting for the consequences to rain down on them all and... nothing.

It's like when you need to sneeze and you know you'll feel good after, but in the end nothing happens.

To Sum Up

This is a case of 5 for writing but 2 for enjoyability. While meticulously plotted, I cannot see myself wanting to reread a book where even the most sympathetic and maternal character, Claire, turns out to be morally reprehensible. Perhaps this is a clever exposition on the greyness of morality when it comes to family, but I refuse to believe that so many bad deeds can go unpunished.