by Herman Koch
292 pp. Hogarth. $24
North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This preference is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and that those few aren’t interesting. Surely what actually matters is that characters clear this vital hurdle: that they be interesting.
“The Dinner,” the newly translated novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch, has been a European sensation and an international best seller. But of course in the Netherlands, the vituperative Austrian Thomas Bernhard remains popular, whereas in the United States he is the acquired taste of a cultish few. The success of “The Dinner” depends, in part, on the carefully calibrated revelations of its unreliable and increasingly unsettling narrator, Paul Lohman. Whatever else he may be, likable he is not. There is a bracing nastiness to this book that grows ever more intense with the turning of its pages. It will not please those who seek the cozy, the redemptive or the uplifting. If you are such a reader, you may stop right here.
Although rare, there are American books that have triumphed on account of their unpleasantness: Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” comes to mind. Its brutality was seen as a comment on the changing American reality of 20 years ago, and in consequence, many felt it important to have an opinion about the book. “The Dinner” is, to some extent, analogously culturally attuned, but attuned to a distinctly European society, one simultaneously more ostentatious in its apparent “civilization” and more ashamed of its underlying savagery. It will be interesting to see whether Paul Lohman’s clandestine rage has the power to disconcert a nation already bathed in the blood of mass shootings.
The novel’s claustrophobic premise is the gathering of two couples for dinner in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam. The book is divided up by courses, and we will come to know everything that the four people eat and drink (or don’t). Much is made of the pretensions of the establishment and the preposterousness of its food. (“The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.”) Paul, one of the diners and our evening’s guide, has little patience for such bourgeois nonsense, and initially his discontent may seem almost laudable, as a rejection of received standards, especially coupled as it is with apparent marital bliss (“I was looking at Claire, looking at my wife, probably with a loving gaze. . . . I tightened my grip around her waist and sniffed: shampoo. Shampoo and something else, something warm — the smell of happiness, I thought”) and manifest affection for his teenage son, Michel.
This familial glow does not extend, however, to Paul and Claire’s dining companions — Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. Serge is a highly successful politician, the opposition candidate in the coming national elections. (Paul, it should be noted, is a former high school history teacher, retired for medical reasons.) Paul finds everything about Serge repellent, from his handshake and his smile to his table manners and projected bedroom behavior: “I bet my brother . . . stuffs himself into a woman in the same way he stuffs a beef croquette into his mouth.” Even Serge and Babette’s choice of holiday disgusts: “Every year, Serge and Babette went to their house in the Dordogne with the children. They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’: from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films.” Paul contrives to be dismissive even of their children, particularly of their third child, Beau, adopted from Burkina Faso — he seems to imply that the adoption was all but a publicity stunt.
Paul’s ranting about fashionable restaurants and politicians’ naked ambition may stir pleasure in many a reader’s misanthropic heart. Some reviews suggest it’s possible, at first, to believe that Paul is clearheaded and sane, although this was at no time my experience. (Familiarity with the obsessive, unreliable narrators of Bernhard’s fiction may be helpful in this regard.) But as we come to understand what has brought about this dinner, and what is at stake, it is impossible to continue to side with our narrator.
This, then, is a novel that rests on the disclosure of secrets. At its center, there is the terrible crime committed by Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, along with Serge and Babette’s eldest, Rick. The violence is vividly described; in an ugly but all-too-plausible contemporary detail, a video of it has been uploaded to YouTube. But the crime is only one of the novel’s twists. Koch’s construction carefully manipulates his readers through a series of flashbacks and observations that will lead to a full, sinister apprehension of the unholy triad formed by Paul, Claire and Michel, the so-called happy family. Eventually, it’s clear that the much maligned Serge, whatever his flaws, is the better man; but this doesn’t mean he will triumph.
To build a novel around its secrets presents a structural challenge. Certainly, the promise of their unveiling compels the reader. But that compulsion can be hollow, and easily dissatisfied. (I found myself shamefacedly thinking, as I read about the boys’ crime, Sure, it’s bad, but I’d imagined something even worse!) Attending to the secrets, we are less committed to their creators, the characters themselves. Koch endeavors to transcend this literary diminution by making Paul’s personality the ultimate focus of the book. But here, too, he encounters a problem — of tidiness. In a strange, narratively conservative turn, we will come to believe that everything that has occurred can be explained neurologically. This takes away the characters’ agency — they are merely acting out their prescribed fates — and in so doing, renders them significantly less interesting. Which, to return to a novel’s first requirement — not that its characters be likable but that they be interesting — is a formally hazardous situation.
In the end, it is Claire who emerges as the book’s most intriguing figure. She is a willing and conscious participant in the acts and secrets perpetrated by the sick people around her, and yet as far as we know, is not herself “sick.” It is through her role in egging on the others — something like that of the women in Federico García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” — that we might more clearly understand the societal flaws on which Koch intends to comment. But this isn’t, ultimately, what interests the author. Rather, he has created a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails. “The Dinner,” absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow, and this may be the most unsettling thing about it.