Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch
It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.
Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.
Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
I have to begin by saying that there are only two books I’ve read in one sitting. The first was The House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. The second was The Dinner by Herman Kock. I bought this on a whim on a Sunday afternoon and had devoured it whole by Monday evening. We had guests for lunch on Monday afternoon…I ignored them. I was too busy turning the pages of this absolutely maddening book, searching for clues, hoping for answers, and finally, dissolving with a sense of fatigue with the climactic ending.
I am a sucker for books that delve deep into the raw, real issues surrounding the human condition. Stories about the heart are the stories that win mine. This was one of those books.
Over the course of one evening (and over about 300 pages), I learned more about six strangers than I know about people I see on a day to day basis. Who they are, what drives them, what angers them, how far they’re willing to go and how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect those they love. Under tense circumstances, the best and the worst of these characters is brought to light. The swelling egos, tense moments, tears, perfectly aligned with an array of the choicest foods the restaurant has to offer, sets up a story that only Koch could have come up with.
* I didn’t feel like going to the restaurant. I never do. A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening was hell itself.
* Claire is smarter than I am. I’m not saying that out of some half-baked feminist sentiment or in order to endear women to me. You’ll never hear me claim that “women in general” are smarter than men. Or more sensitive, more intuitive, that they are more “in touch with life” or any of the other horse shit that, when all is said and done, so-called sensitive men try to peddle more often than women themselves.
* At last, we were able to resume our conversation. Resume was not exactly the right word, though: as it turned out, none of us had the slightest idea what we’d been talking about before the appetizers arrived. That was one of the disadvantages of these so-called top restaurants: all the interruptions, like the exaggerated detailed review of every pine nut on your plate, the endless uncorking of wine bottles, and unsolicited topping up of glasses made you lose track.
* Looking back on it, that Sunday was the high point as well. The novelty of living a life without guarded thoughts quickly wore off. Life become more constant, more muted, like a party where you can see everyone talking and gesturing but you can’t hear what anyone in particular is saying. No more peaks and thoughts. Something was missing. You sometimes hear about people who have lost their sense of smell and taste: for those people, a plate of the most delicious food means nothing at all. That was how I looked at life sometimes, as a warm meal that was growing cold. I knew I had to eat, or else I would die, but I had lost my appetite.
A must read!
Learn more about Herman Koch here