Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Dinner, Herman Koch

The DinnerWe were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there. 

"A summer's evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse - the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But behind 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 worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children, and as civility and friendship disintegrates, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love."

I really enjoyed The Dinner, and despite its being rather pretentious, it was darkly humorous and wonderfully sardonic. I practically bookmarked every page as having some little twist or irony of note, and wrote down a whole list of adjectives that could be used to describe this novel. There are certainly a lot.

I found myself inexorably drawn into this chilling story. The narration is one of annoyingly withholding information, which serves to make the book more suspenseful as well as foreboding. Because for about half of the book, there are hints of this dreadful event, but the reader doesn't actually know what it's all about. The tension builds and builds, and it's what's not being said that is important, in terms of Paul's narration and the dinner conversation. Herman Koch employs very detailed descriptions of the gourmet food, but he's so, so vague about the actually important things. There's also this building dread as the restaurant manager's pinky gets closer and closer to the food itself.

The Dinner wonderfully satirizes the whole gourmet food culture of the restaurant at which the dinner is held, from the descriptions of black-pinafored maitre-d's to the Art Deco lights, to the restaurant manager himself, endlessly describing the food that he serves. The whole scene is rather nightmarish actually, juxtaposed with what's actually going on at the dinner and in the characters' lives. The novel definitely does skewer the pretentious menus (pun alert). That said, the book itself is rather pretentious too, and one can tell that Herman Koch thinks he's remarkably clever. Which he is, but that's beside the point.

The Dinner certainly skewers more than just pretentious menus; it reveals the darker side of genteel society, and satirizes the certain brand of politician and supposed family man that the narrator's brother Serge represents. It also rather cynically poses an agonizing conundrum: how far will you go to protect the ones you love, even if they've done something unspeakable? And what is your devotion to the law? Such cases as these are never easy, and it's definitely really, really hard, more so in this case because it's the two brothers' sons who are involved.

The characters in this book are really unlikable, though I didn't hate them as much as others. Paul seemed okay, just arrogant and fond of mocking other people. At least so it appears at first. As the narrator, he sets the tone of the novel: sardonic, cynical, unsettling and more nasty by the page. As the book progressed, he gets really disturbing; Paul definitely has some psychological issues, such as when in a flashback he wants to pulverize the principal. At first, I kind of lauded him for his rejection of certain things, and he seemed sane and clearheaded enough; however, it becomes clear that he has many, many problems and is not altogether sane despite his affection for his wife and son and his marital bliss (before the incident, of course). By the end, Paul is revealed as a maniac. Babette, Serge's wife, was I think the least characterized; I didn't really get a sense of her enough to like or dislike her. Serge is of course, really annoying and pretentious and pedantic, but one can tell that Paul is perhaps a little too critical of him. These four people are meeting for a tense and charged night of...well, that's what the novel's about.

As one might expect, the very slow, stretched out nature, of the book leads to some issues in terms of plotting and pace but it's remarkably well done. There are often many pages in which Paul dwells on one particular characteristic or reflection, but that's part of the book's dark charm and humor. There are of course flashbacks to days and weeks previous, which make the story much more interesting. And since Paul is so coy about what the dinner is actually being held to discuss, it kept me reading. The Dinner is subtle and methodical, slyly portraying and revealing human rituals and often their ridiculousness.

 The Dinner is quite disturbing, what with the heavy foreshadowing of doom that is woven throughout the book. Koch also plays with a refrain from Anna Karenina: the very first line about happy families all being alike and unhappy families all being unhappy in their own way. Paul keeps hinting that his family's happiness is over, about to devolve into a unique form of unhappiness.

I'll end with a quote from the very beginning of the novel that is quite chilling and basically provides the set-up or lead-in to the rest of the book: "It happened quickly: one moment I was looking at Claire, looking at my wife, probably with a loving gaze, or at least with a twinkle, and the next moment I felt a damp film slide down over my eyes. Under no circumstances was she to notice anything strange about me, so I buried my face in her hair. I tightened my grip around her waist and sniffed: shampoo. Shampoo and something else, something warm - the smell of happiness, I thought.What would this evening have been like if, no more than an hour ago, I had simply waited downstairs until it was time to go, rather than climb the stairs to Michel's room? What would the rest of our lives have been like? Would the smell of happiness I inhaled from my wife's hair still have smelled only like happiness, and not, as it did now, like some distant memory - like the smell of something you could lose just like that?" (pgs 15-16).

Read another excellent review here.

292 pages.

Rating: ****

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