Book Review – The Dinner by Herman Koch

It’s summer. Our narrator is at a nice restaurant in Amsterdam – small portions, high prices, you know the kind – with his wife and his brother and his sister-in-law. It’s one of those restaurants and his brother is one of those guys. The type of guy who can get a reservation at a moment’s notice by saying his name. A politician with his career on the rise. Our narrator, Paul, is a regular guy. He loves his wife – we witness the way they can communicate easily and silently – and his son. He would do anything for them.

With a few disparaging stories – his brother’s second home in France, the way he orders wine -we are eager to agree with Paul’s opinion of his brother, Serge. The novel is seeped in tension from the beginning. Paul and his wife, Claire, don’t want to be at this restaurant, they don’t want to spend time with Serge and Babette. There is a topic that this family needs to be discussed, that they are each skirting around. The choice of this public place, a fancy restaurant where Serge is easily recognized, speaks to the distance between these brothers.

Slowly, the story unwraps. We are deep in Paul’s thoughts and perspective and, at first, we accept what he tells us. Why wouldn’t we? Can’t you always trust the narrator?

Koch forces us to challenge all of our notions about truth in narration and trust as the truth of who Paul Lohman truly is and what he believes in. He does a masterful job of slowly revealing glimpses of Paul’s personality. While we know almost from the beginning that there is something Paul and Serge must discuss about their children, the actual conversation doesn’t occur until very close to the end of the novel. Waiting for this confrontation propels the novel and adds to the tension. As their meal is interrupted by Serge’s fans, Paul sneaking out to speak with his son, and secret conversations between Paul and Claire, we eagerly anticipate the revelation of this family secret. Meanwhile, Paul recalls his son’s childhood, how he lost his job, and his version of the incident that has brought them together. Somewhere along the way, you will find yourself open-mouthed in horror.

The major downside of the novel for me was that I had trouble believing these characters would gather to have this conversation in such a public place. They are aware of the need for privacy, that no one can know what’s going on, and they are also aware that everyone in the restaurant knows who Serge is. At various times, characters cry, yell, and get up from the table for extended periods. It seems hard to believe that no one would be paying attention to them.

In the end though, I was extremely impressed with Koch’s ability to challenge so many of my preconceived notions as a reader. He creates a delightfully creepy situation and characters, while still offering us a story that is entirely believable in the real world. Unfortunately.

*Since reading Dutch is not one of my secret talents, I read the English translation of The Dinner by Sam Garrett.

 

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