Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Dinner

The Dinner The Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ended up liking this one a lot more than I thought I would after the first 25-30 pages.

This begins as a clever but almost precious conceit. A man and his wife go to dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. The brother is an influential Dutch politician, and that means they get special attention at the oh-so-pricey and full-of-itself restaurant they choose.

Even that start is strong. Our narrator has a funny judgmental tone, showing up his brother’s pretensions and critiquing the manners of the restaurant manager and others. It’s a quiet beginning, but the peculiar structure – a novel ordered around the stages of a fine meal – makes it intriguing if not compelling.

Then, gradually, the novel turns harrowing. It becomes, not a light send-up of manners, but a demonstration that much of what seems the bedrock certainty of these people’s lives is false or rotten.

At first we learn, against Tolstoy’s famous phrase, that not “all happy families are alike.” Or rather, we learn that these families are decidedly unhappy, and for reasons that run deeper than seems conceivable. [SPOILER ALERT:] Most strikingly, we learn that the two couples’ children are behind a terrible attack on a homeless person and that one of them the attack and has blackmailed the others with posting his recordings on Youtube.

Then, we see a deeper unraveling not just of family but of the self (as we learn of the narrator’s deep personal unhappiness), of the Dutch character (for what the narrator sees as a cultural inability to reflect on anything of real substance), and possibly even of the myth of Western culture itself. Eventually a sleeping fascism creeps into everything, darkening the lightheartedness of the opening into something painful to experience but compelling to read.

That’s a long list of certainties to undo over the course of a single dinner, but somehow Koch makes it happen. As I say, it began interestingly enough, though I wondered how well its particular cultural concerns would translate. As it gains momentum, though, it turns from a light meal into a hell of a lot to chew on. Miraculously, it does all of that without ever quite losing its surface elegance or even its lightness. This is a deeply skilled writer taking on the deepest of questions. So, yes, it does translate very effectively.

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