The Dinner | Herman Koch

Please don’t hold it against me, but I devoured The Dinner in one weekend. I could barely put it down (except for the times when the horribleness got too much for me and I had to look away.)

For me it was the book equivalent of Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. It was ugly, provocative and disturbing in the way it attempted to normalise truly ghastly behaviours.

At the same time it made me laugh and it kept me curious despite my best intentions to be shocked. Actually laugh is the wrong word – smug smirking would be a better description or perhaps wry humour. Somehow I felt amused and appalled at the same time.

The Dinner is told through the eyes of Paul.

Initially you feel empathy and affinity with Paul as he describes being outshone all his life by his bigger-than-life politician brother, Serge. With his wife, Claire, Paul prepares to attend a dinner with Serge and his wife, Babette at a fancy-smancy restaurant.

So far just another happy-unhappy family scenario – sibling rivalry with a little Dutch political commentary and some amusing asides about fine dining. But then we find out that the 15 year old sons of both couples have got themselves into some kind of trouble and the dinner is an attempt to sort it out.

Okay, 15 year old boys get themselves into trouble all the time. Maybe they cheated on an exam, took a car for a joyride, smoked some pot?
Oh no, no, no!

Here we leave normal far behind. And the farce begins.

Gradually the truth about the boys is revealed and the character flaws of all four parents are laid bare. Any sympathy or affinity for any of the players is left as collapsed as Serge’s uneaten dame blanche!

At the end I was left bemused by my willingness to be entralled by this bitter little family fable. I’m not sure I learnt anything new about human nature as the people in this book seem as far removed from human’ understanding as it is possible to get.

My lifelong search to understand man’s inhumanity to man was not enlightened by reading this. I already knew that intolerance, amorality and deceit existed but The Dinner gave me no real clues as to how this came about for these particular people and why it became so extreme. (Except I was curious to know what the un-named psychological condition was that the author gave to Paul and his son. And what was really wrong with Claire during her extended stay in hospital?)

Yet despite all of this, or maybe because of all of this, I would actually recommend this book to those of you who enjoy a dark, disturbing and twisted tale Tarantino-style.

A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness – the banality of work, the triviality of holidays.

But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened… Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera, and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation; despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified – by everyone except their parents.

As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children and, as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

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