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REVIEW: The Dinner


The Dinner

Herman Koch

Atlantic Books

(Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

NOTHING says bourgeois quite like the Western five-course dinner.  A metonymic drama in five acts — aperitif, appetiser, main course, dessert and digestif — The Dinner is diabolically postmodern, dancing in the ruins and toying with the fragments of one family’s takedown.the-dinner-jacket

An obscenely ostentatious restaurant in The Hague, stocked with the quintessential maître d’, and where the waiting list is no less than three months for a table next to the toilets, is the darkroom where four diners’ negatives are fixed and held up to the light.

Aspiring prime minister Serge Lohman is nothing if not pretentious. Brother Paul obscures his revulsion of Serge by the narrowest of margins.

But now the brothers have another problem — possibly the only thing they have in common — that forces them to conspire with each other rather than against. Their teenage sons have, quite casually and apparently unapologetically, done something terrible – with wide and worrying consequences – and only their parents know it.

Now seated before microscopic swanky dishes, Serge and wife Babette, and Paul and wife Claire thrust and parry until the topic becomes too weighty to ignore. They awkwardly plough their way through “lamb’s-neck sweetbread marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket … the sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria” and grapes “lying beside a deep purple piece of lettuce, full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course, “fillet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin sliced German bacon”.’ Observing his dish, Paul points to that most definitive element of avaricious restaurants — the vastly unpopulated plate: “… I am well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.”

The grandiloquence of the fare is patently meant to reflect the gluttonous self-gratification of its capitalistic protagonists.

This edifice is perhaps somewhat synthetic, but it’s also convincing, and Koch toys with the reader, queueing signs and red herrings, introducing an itchy skepticism. “It’s like when someone leaves a pistol during the first act,” Paul tells us, “you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama.” In this metafiction, the gun is Michel’s cellphone, which has stored the crime.

As the couples surreptitiously try to establish who knew what and when, skeletons in the closet come out into the light, contextualising the boys’ actions, with unanticipated coalitions being formed as it becomes clear just how far parents are prepared to go to protect their children — and themselves.

The overarching erotema is “what should honest citizens do?” Who of the four will ask themselves that, and what actions will they take? To what extent can the sins of the son be blamed on those of the father? Because we soon discover that Paul is not a sympathetic protagonist after all. His vicious streak, juxtaposed with his apparent need to play Happy Families with his wife, reveals him as that most familiar of dramatis personae: an exceptionally unreliable narrator.

As a protagonist, Paul’s own psyche is also the antagonist, and here Koch factors in another dimension: that time old conundrum of nature versus nurture. What is the nature of evil? Is it a genetic defect, like Down’s Syndrome or haemophilia? Was his son Michel’s hypocrisy and involvement in a heinous act just a matter of time? It would be disingenuous of Koch to attempt to foist an answer on the reader, but, by subverting the rules of social interaction and familial loyalty, one is led to a single universally disturbing conclusion: a pointless random act can change not only the course of many lives, but even the course of history.

The back-cover blurb suggests a comparison to Christos Tsolkas’s Booker longlisted The Slap, but, to my mind, it is rather less contentious but more engaging. The ethical heft of The Dinner and Koch’s composed, sociological eye gives witness to how powerful fiction can be in irradiating the modern world. The reader will leave the restaurant not sated and replete, but with dyspepsia, or perhaps even food-poisoning. The Dinner is sure to find a placemat on the tables of those who enjoy seeing the smug confidence of middle-class families smashed on the floor, when the watery façades of decorum and etiquette are tossed aside, revealing the savage beasts that sit down to the chicanery of the modern dinner.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2013.


REVIEW: Silent House

Silent House

Silent HouseSilent House

Orhan Pamuk

Faber & Faber

(Translation from the Turkish by Robert Finn)

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

CRACKING the spine of Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House, we are required to read through the overlay of time and translation: Silent House was written 30 years ago when Pamuk was 31, writing frenetically on the back of two military coups d’état and the proxy wars of America and the then USSR that so divided Turkey’s left and right.

Silent House precedes the Pamuk opus that English-language readers are likely to be familiar with: The White Castle; The Black Book; My Name is Red; Snow; The Museum of Innocence.

How, then, should we judge Silent House? Should we view Pamuk as a writer then trying to get into his stride, or should we, perhaps unfairly, hold Silent House up to the same light as his later, more honed works?

Set over a week in the summer of 1980, with Turkey on the brink of a military coup, Faruk, Nilgün and Metin pay their annual visit to their 90-year-old grandmother, Fatma, at her decaying mansion in Cennethisar, a one-time fishing village now increasingly given over to trendy resorts and modish tourists.

The story is told through the rotating stream-of-consciousness perspectives of five characters: Faruk, corpulent and inebriated, an amateur in the study of history; Metin, an underpaid tutor who dreams of making a fortune in America; and their sister Nilgün, a dilettantish left-winger. The Miss Havisham-like Fatma is waited on by Recep, the illegitimate son of her dead husband. He serves her loyally despite her incessant maltreatment; he is a dwarf — perhaps intended by Pamuk to embody the traditional feudal subordination of Turkey’s oppressed.

Fatma is plagued by the memory of her late husband Selahattin, a secular liberal who gave up his medical practice to work on a never-to-be-completed “encyclopedia of everything” that he believed would enlighten the benighted East about Western thought and science. In one of several soliloquies, we learn that Selahattin made Fatma sell her jewellery to fund his attempt at writing the encyclopedia: “… so that the East, which has been slumbering for centuries, will wake up”. To the dismay of the God-fearing Fatma, Selahattin’s intention with the encyclopedia was to disprove the existence of God. In this way Silent House examines the role of literature and writing in a tortured society, and now we learn that Faruk is following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in working on a manuscript that will seek to “explain Turkey and the universe”.

When her mind is in the present, Fatma lives in paranoid fear that Recep will reveal to her grandchildren that he is one of Selahattin’s two illegitimate children.

Hasan, the son of Selahattin’s other lovechild, is a high-school dropout who runs with fascists, collecting protection money, daubing walls in graffiti. Vague, full of misdirected yearning, Hasan is soon fixated on Nilgün (they don’t know that they share a grandfather) and dreams up elaborate plans for them to meet, but when Nilgün spurns him, his reaction lays down the framework for a climacteric event later in the novel.

Hasan imagines piloting a revolution, while Metin dreams of escaping to America, returning victorious. Both answer rejection with violence. Hasan, in a prescient vision, looks neither to the West nor the East or even Turkey as his pointer, but to Islam. He runs with a group of politicised young men whose catch-phrase question is: “Are you first a Muslim or a Turk?” and who persecute the local newsagents, destroying their copies of the communist newspaper and tearing down pinups of women. To these agitators, an Elvis Presley LP in a Turk’s possession is proof of treason.

Pamuk captures the melancholy of towns that used to be ports, the nebulous world of beach shops, insalubrious taverns, Anatolian nights where the indigenous serve the entitled.

Meanwhile, Nilgün sunbathes, reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons — a novel that pits nihilism against romanticism — underscoring Silent House’s tense mood of incompatible doctrines.

As with Pamuk’s other works, Silent House is characterised by an uncertainty or erosion of identity precipitated by the conflict between Occidental and Oriental values; and tradition and secularism. It is disquieting, and at times outright alarming, but never gratuitous either in plot or character.

It is said that Turkish is an absurdly difficult language to translate into English. Maureen Freely, who has translated many of Pamuk’s books (but not this one), compares it to “carrying a bunch of groceries around without a grocery bag”. The country’s language revolution of the 1930s, which sought to rid Turkish of Arabic and Persian influences, effectively gutted Turkish vocabulary, and many writers since that time, Pamuk included, have seen it as their duty to reforge the language anew.

It’s hard to say, then, how much of the novel’s frequent clumsiness is due to Pamuk’s then-unhoned skills as a writer and how much to Robert Finn’s translation. It has a few of Pamuk’s strengths, but its real interest may be to bear witness to how a fledgling writer may, stutteringly, grow into a Nobel Prize laureate.

Although Silent House is an engaging story that deserves to be read in and of itself, it is sadly afflicted by its publication after the writer’s more mature works, as well as its amateurish translation. The novel certainly sheds light on his evolution as a novelist; but those new to his work would do best to start elsewhere.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2013.