The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Netherlands’ Herman Koch may be considered (by some, at least) a remarkably talented man. A successful screenwriter, producer, playwright and novelist in Europe, his novel, The Dinner, will no doubt introduce him to a wider international audience, if for no other reason than its prickly subject. A blurb for this book might seem more like a trailer for a film than anything else: four parents, one dinner and an inescapable decision… or is it?
Paul Lohman and his prime-ministerial candidate brother, Serge, are going out to dinner with their wives. Paul expects the night to be painful in the extreme: a pretentious, overpriced restaurant coupled with his brother’s infuriating overly charismatic behaviour is only the beginning of the unpleasantness. But this get-together will be even more distasteful than usual, because at this dinner, Paul and his brother and their wives have something very important to talk about.
Once the small talk has petered out, the conversation takes an unexpected turn – to their teenage sons, the terrible thing that they have done, and how far these parents will go to protect their children from the consequences of their actions.
What begins as an acidly funny setting up of the dinner gradually becomes more sinister. Paul’s credibility as a narrator soon begins to fade and the seriousness of the boys’ actions comes to light. It is an intriguing premise, one that is likely to rouse a debate between readers about right and wrong.
It is lucid to the end, though the main course and dessert lack the dark humour of the dinner’s aperitif and appetiser. There are also elements of the story that appear and are then dropped rather suddenly later on. Nevertheless, Koch has produced a strange and compelling read, a taut family drama with a distinctly dark edging.
Nicole Mansour is the Assistant Manager of Readings St Kilda.