Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #44: The Dinner by Herman Koch

This novel, a bestseller in Europe apparently, left me feeling upset, depressed, even slightly nauseated by the characters and the plot of this “simple little story” which is anything but. I’m not sure whether Koch has done us a service or disservice by writing this book, but I guess that it all depends on what the reader takes away from it.

The Dinner is centered around two Dutch couples—two brothers and their wives—meeting at an upscale restaurant to discuss something disturbing regarding their children. We are given tiny little clues all along the way but you need to get more than halfway through the book before you find out what has happened. A teenaged son from each couple have committed a horrific “Clockwork Orange” style attack on a homeless person, and seem to have gotten away with the act. The indistinct video of the incident that is picked up by a security camera and shown on the national news reveals the perpetrators—to their parents, at least—as their sons, and the couple are meeting to decide what to do.

Very early on, the reader sides with Paul and Claire, who are clearly a loving and happy couple, while the other couple Serge and Babette come into the restaurant after a huge fight. Babette’s eyes are red and swollen, while Paul’s brother Serge is embarrassed and unsympathetic. We learn that Serge is a prominent politician whose self-indulgent appetites and bevy of sycophants disgusts Paul, and during the first portion of The Dinner, the reader can easily sympathize with Paul’s viewpoint, especially since it is Paul who is narrating the story. However, as we learn what the couples are there to discuss, we discover that Paul and his wife are already decided to protect their son at any cost, while Serge has come to announce a plan to retire his candidacy for prime minister while naming the boys as the perpetrators as a way to bring it out into the open and help them deal with the consequences of what they have done. Babette appeals to Paul and Claire to change Serge’s mind, but Serge is adamant.

As the tensions build, we get to follow Paul’s increasingly disjointed sojourn down the rabbit hole of his own mental illness. We learn of Paul’s own tendency toward violent outbreaks of psychosis, and his momentary concern that this may have surfaced in his son, but we also learn that it was Paul who nurtured increasingly scary antisocial tendencies, in the name of “telling it like it is,” from his son’s earliest years. We begin to wonder just what messages Claire is sending Paul with her enigmatic smiles across the dinner table. We experience a brief encounter with Paul and Claire’s sociopathic son outside the restaurant, and see firsthand how his parents have created the nightmare they are now living.

Suddenly, our sympathies are with Serge who, whatever his flaws and weaknesses, is trying to do the right thing, and the balance of the story has suddenly shifted under us. The rapid escalation of the plot into an unimagined and unimaginable climax is both shocking and yet, unhappily, so absurd as to leave this reader, at least, shaking her head in disbelief. Whether Koch is offering up a commentary on mental illness, parenting failure, violence and moral ambivalence in contemporary society, or all of the above, I leave those of you with stronger stomachs than my own to decide.

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