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.


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