THE DINNER has been slowly and steadily winning international acclaim since its initial publication in 2009. Its author, Herman Koch, is a Dutch author and comedic actor; one however, should only expect to find an occasional touch of grim humor within its pages. The book is a multi-layered --- one could say multi-course --- excursion into darkness, played out over the course of an evening’s few hours. And while a lot changes from the beginning to the end, there is much more that tragically remains the same.
The book is divided into several sections, such as Apertif, Appetizer and Main Course. The narrator is the somewhat dyspeptic Paul Lohman, who initially describes his family --- himself, his wife Claire and 15-year-old son Michel --- as a happy one. Yet Paul himself seems extremely unhappy at the prospect of a dinner that he and Claire are to have with Paul’s older brother, Serge, and sister-in-law Babette. Early on there is a sense of discord between the elder Lohman siblings, and indeed the heart of the novel appears to be the relationship between two brothers. Paul seems bitter and full of anger with his brother and the world at large. Some of this may be envy, given that Serge is a highly regarded and popular politician who is on the cusp of being elected Prime Minister of Denmark. This is mentioned repeatedly, in one form or another, while it is some time before we ultimately learn what Paul does for a living.
"The book is a multi-layered --- one could say multi-course --- excursion into darkness, played out over the course of an evening’s few hours.... A perfect novel for book club discussions, THE DINNER is a book to be read in a few hours, discussed for days, and remembered, if uneasily, for a lifetime."
One gets the feeling that Serge is 300 pounds of manure in a 100-pound bag, full of the good cheer that comes with politicking for Beau when they already have 15-year-old Rick and 13-year-old Valerie, and perhaps that is true to some degree. Paul, however, even finds suspicion in Serge and Babette’s adoption of an African child. In any event, the dinner in question is not a celebratory one. Rather, it is occurring at Serge’s insistence at a restaurant of his choosing, an upscale establishment where pretentiousness rules and that Paul abhors. It is not really a social gathering --- it seems that the relationship between the siblings is too strained for such a thing --- but rather a repast that is to serve ultimately as the background for a serious discussion about the respective children of the two couples. The need for such a conversation is gradually doled out piecemeal to the reader by Paul, even as the topic is delayed during the course of the meal.
As the couples eat, however, it becomes clear that something else is occurring. The reader learns more from Paul --- a crumb here, a thread there --- and it is revealed that what at first seemed to be really bad is in fact horrific. It leaves the parties with the issue as to what course of action they should take. Serge unilaterally makes plans that Paul and another person attempt to thwart. What is ultimately stunning, though, are the questions that the book asks in an ever-so-subtle manner of the reader: What would you do? And why? What is the right thing to do? The right thing appears obvious here, but for whom? How far do you go? And why?
One of the more fascinating elements of THE DINNER is that, while set in Amsterdam, it just as easily could have taken place in the United States. There were times when I forgot that it was not set in New York, Chicago, or Columbus. This in part is due to Garrett’s pitch-perfect translation of the original manuscript, but I suspect that the primary reason is that the specific action that gives rise to the general issue that the brothers must discuss and act upon (or not) is of some concern not only in Sweden but also in the United States and other parts of the world as well. It’s as if someone has pressed a button and created quiet monsters among us. And it is this quality that makes the book all the more unsettling and disturbing.
A perfect novel for book club discussions, THE DINNER is a book to be read in a few hours, discussed for days, and remembered, if uneasily, for a lifetime.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 15, 2013