Translator: Sam Garrett
I have often argued that a book doesn’t need likable characters for it to be entertaining or good. Herman Koch’s “The Dinner” puts that theory to the test. By the end of “The Dinner,” the results of the meal are mixed-at best.
“The Dinner” is narrated by Paul Lohman over the span of a five course meal, inclusive of aperitif and digestif in a fancy Amsterdam restaurant. Paul shares this meal with his wife Claire, and, to his great displeasure, his brother, Serge and his brother’s wife Babette. Paul expresses his dissatisfaction from the get go. Had he his druthers, he would not be eating at this pretentious establishment, chosen by his Prime Minster-to-be brother, but at the “ordinary people” cafe across the street. In fact, Paul, if he could help it, would rather not be spending time with his brother at all.
Paul Lohman is a deeply bitchy narrator. He spends the majority of the book criticizing everything and everyone. The only two that escape his capacious complaining are his wife and son (mostly). His appetite seems not to be for the food in front of him, which, of course, he finds lacking in both quality and quantity, but for any faults, real or imagined, he might find in others. And he has a habit of institutionalizing his criticism, turning what he finds distasteful within an individual into a stereotype with which he paints vast swathes of the populace, whether it be his countrymen, politicians, administrators, or the homeless. When it comes to passing judgment, Paul’s findings are final. One of the best examples of Paul’s distaste for others comes when we discover he has been put on leave from his job as a history teacher for suggesting that his students think about the good that comes from war, considering how many assholes die.
“How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless, horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be – and not only you, but virtually the entire family – if that uncle or cousin would step on a land-mine or be hit by a five-hundred- pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those millions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past…and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be.”
As the evening unfolds, we discover the dinner is no casual affair but has a purpose. Serge has summoned Paul and his wife to discuss an issue involving both their children (each has a son-plus Serge and Babette have adopted an African boy named Beau). Through flashback, Paul reveals that his son Michel and Serge’s son, Rick, killed a homeless woman they stumbled across in an ATM. Neither has been identified as suspects, but do to video footage which airs on TV, this could change. Paul spends a good chunk of the book trying to rationalize his son’s behavior, at the same time revealing his own violent streak (like the time he hit his brother in the face with a frying pan) which stems from some unidentified genetic disease. Michel argues that they didn’t mean to hurt the vagrant woman, but their laughter, caught on camera, as they threw things at her (a discarded desk chair, bags full of garbage and finally an empty can of gasoline and a match) make these boys less than sympathetic. Paul decides, after confronting Michel, that this will be their little secret. However, due to Michel’s and Rick’s continued violence, videos posted online, and a supposed blackmail attempt by Rick’s adopted brother, Paul finds the secret more difficult to keep than he suspected.
And now, at this dinner, his brother Serge announces that not only does he know about what happened, but that he plans to force his son to turn himself in after he himself pulls out of the campaign for Prime Minister.
For Claire and Paul, everything boils down to family. To them, family means more than the dead homeless person, Serge’s political career, or anything else. However, Paul and Claire get to decide how one defines family, and in the end, Beau doesn’t make the cut. Quite frankly, Serge doesn’t either.
But, at it’s core, this book is really about a family of sociopaths. Though we never learn what Paul’s “condition” is, we do know it is genetic, and that, according to Paul’s therapist, had his parents had a prenatal test done and discovered this condition, they would have been advised to abort him. Paul spends much of the book worrying about whether his son has the condition, though whether he does or not seems irrelevant when Paul offers lessons in violence like when he threatened to beat a shop keeper with a bike pump or when he beat and threatened to throw Michel’s principal out of a window. The surprise comes when we learn that Paul’s wife, Claire, also has no fear of getting her hands bloody to protect her son and prefers her husband unmedicated and volatile.
There are no redeemable characters in this novel. That’s not Koch’s point. And again, generally, I have no problem with that. However, we spend the entire time in Paul’s head, listening to him criticize and bitch and rationalize and generally think horrible thoughts without a single character ever passing any kind of judgement on him. It becomes tiring. At times I had to put the book down just to get away from Paul. I steadily lost interest in him as the book went on. Though I find this book infinitely better than “Twilight” it did remind me of the torture I felt trapped inside Bella Swan’s incessant narrative whining. And because Paul spends so much of his discontent on pointless things, like his food or the pretentious manager and his ever pointing pinky, the narrative often drags. You have the sensation of being trapped at a Thanksgiving dinner table with your grumpy aunt who spends the entire meal bitching about how she never gets to go anywhere, no one comes to visit her and how Mexicans are taking all the good jobs. You reach the point in the dinner where you become hopeful that she’ll choke on a stray bone from the turkey. Perhaps that’s Koch’s goal-to release your inner Paul.
For “The Dinner”, I stayed for dessert, but barely, and in the end, I still found myself asking whether that last course was good enough to make the rest of the meal worthwhile.