The Dinner – Herman Koch

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Enter the lives of retired school teacher, Paul Lohman and the high esteemed politician, Serge Lohman whose table top discussions are a smokescreen for one of the biggest scandals in political history.

I was left in two minds about this novel. The writing is arguably, extremely clever. Each section of the novel is categorized under the sub-headings of a five-course meal: ‘aperitif’, ‘appetizer’, ‘main course’, ‘dessert’ and ‘digestif’. Aside from various, relevant flashbacks, the whole of the  present is set in one of the top restaurants in Amsterdam. The sort of restaurant ‘where you have to call three months in advance’ and where each ingredient comes with a lecture by the ‘maître d’’ describing its country of origin and what farm it has been reared on.
Our protagonist, Paul, is a retired school teacher, and throughout the novel, Koch reveals that he is, perhaps, more than a little unhinged, making his narration somewhat unreliable.

The novel begins with Paul and his wife Claire, who are going to dinner with Paul’s brother Serge, and his wife Babette. It is hard to pin down the pace of this novel; on the one hand, the narrative spans over the course of three, maybe even two hours, meaning that it feels like the movement from each course of the meal is slow. On the other hand, flashbacks occur regularly, and we get glimpses into Paul and Claire’s family life with their fifteen-year-old son, Michel. Through these flashbacks, we find out that the couples at the dinner table hold a dreadful secret, a secret made even more pressing by Serge’s status as a politician, currently running for prime minister.

This novel is oppressive and fraught with political, social and domestic issues that Paul struggles to find a balance for. I found it somewhat enlightening, as it shows the facade and the pressure under which politicians are under and the strains it puts on their personal lives.

However, I am disappointed to say that I did not hold any sort of warmth or connection with any of the characters; they are just not nice people. Even Paul, straight from the outset, we see harbor a jealousy and an insecurity that I felt no sympathy for, despite him being the main character. Perhaps it’s the unimaginable wealth and lives that these people lead that I felt impossible to connect with.

 Despite this, however, I found the gradual revelations and unraveling of secrets an utter delight to read. Koch’s wit captures the personalities of these characters perfectly and I found myself thinking, “yep, I know one of those people.” Take Paul’s observation on Serge’s eating habits, for instance:

“But I’m hungry right now’ Serge will say. ‘I need to eat now.’
There was something pitiful about it, the dumb resolve that would make him forget everything else – his surroundings, the people he was with – and focus on only one objective: sating his own hunger. At moments like this, he reminded me of an animal that encounters an obstacle in its path: a bird that doesn’t understand that the glass in the windowpane is made of solid matter and flies into it again and again.”

This novel was originally in Dutch and so I read the English translation (by Sam Garrett) and I am pleased to note that I found no odd translations. Koch’s wonderful imagery and symbolisms shine through, making this a novel I would recommend to anyone looking for a short, psychological thriller.

Important Information
• This novel was first published in the Netherlands in 2009 and was published in the UK in 2012.
• Publishers: Ambo Anthos (Amsterdam) and Atlantic Books (UK)
• Check out: The Dinner 2013 film, directed by Menno Meyjes!

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