“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”
I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw) appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.” Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.
The story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society. At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.
I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers, I was laughing out loud:
“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.
It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.
I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.
As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,” with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.
As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.” Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts
I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.
The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.
Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.
Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy