Herman Koch: The Dinner (transl. Sam Garrett)
Why is Dutch literature comparatively unknown abroad? It’s a small country, certainly, but it has many cultural and even linguistic links with Germany and the United Kingdom. Why has Scandinavian noir taken off so dramatically, while authors like Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch and Willem Hermans (collectively known as the ‘Three Giants of Dutch literature’) languish unread and untranslated? It’s not so much the problem of it being spread across two countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) – after all, German has that problem too, spread across three countries.
One writer who seems to be bucking this trend is Herman Koch, yet he is seldom listed in the recommended readings of Dutch literature. Perhaps because he writes something which may be sailing a little too close to ‘genre’ literature to be considered literary? The Dinner was his sixth novel and the one which brought him international recognition, translated into more than 20 languages, adapted for stage and film, and selling over a million copies in Europe alone.
I’m not surprised that Christos Tsiolkas is the first one to blurb the book and describing it as ‘a punch to the guts’, as both authors have that kind of shock value. Yet the book starts sedately enough, perhaps even too much so. Two couples, two brothers and their wives, are having dinner at a rather pretentious restaurant in Amsterdam. The first few chapters seem to be entirely given to the satire of consumer culture and fashionable Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s funny enough, but doesn’t seem to move the story on significantly.
The brothers don’t really see eye to eye, despite the outward show of bonhomie between them. Serge Lohman is a politician and derided by Paul for his hypocrisy and ambition, while Paul himself seems hyper-critical and resentful. Their wives, Babette and Claire, try to smooth things over, but it becomes clear that they are both suffering and hiding things. The conversation starts off with polite banalities, but grows more and more strained, while the first person narrator (Paul) gets interruptions and flashbacks to the underlying issues which has brought these four people to the restaurant in the first place. I don’t want to give too much away (although the back cover of the book does just that), but suffice it to say that the two families have got together to see what should be done about the ‘scrapes’ their sons have got into.
This slippery sliding to and fro through timelines initially irritated me, but then it becomes clear that this messy way of telling the story reveals much more about Paul’s state of mind and about the layers of protective secrecy which the families have tried to weave around themselves. There is the shock factor of what the youngsters have actually done, of course, but what was more shocking was the gradual unravelling of all morals and ethics as the parents try to justify the actions of their offspring and their own reactions. Equally disturbing was that, at first, we find ourselves nodding along sympathetically to Paul’s grumpy assessments of Dutch restaurant culture, tourists in the Dordogne or people’s reactions to meeting celebrities, but then we realise there is a much darker, more sinister aspect to everything that Paul says or does. I’ve never been one to demand likable characters in a novel, but Koch really outdoes himself here in the presentation of unlikable ones.
There is something of the unvarnished, forthright depictions of society or ‘shocking realism’ here which has coloured so much of contemporary Dutch literature. It’s a very cleverly constructed book, designed to make us question our own morality and assumptions. I admire its intention, but have to admit that, upon finishing, I felt a strong need to gurgle or wash the unpleasant stains off.
Can I also say how much better and more subtle the cover of the hardcover version is than the paperback (although the latter copies the Dutch language edition)?