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Onyx reviews: The Dinner by Herman Koch
Two couples meet at an exclusive, chic Amsterdam restaurant for an extravagant
five-course dinner. The men are brothers. One of them—Serge Lohman—is
a politician who may become The Netherlands' next prime minister. He was able to
wrangle reservations at short notice at one of the best tables using his
influence and popularity. His arrival attracts the attention of the other
patrons, who crane their necks for a glimpse while pretending to be unaffected.
brother, Paul, the book's narrator, is disgusted by his brother's craving for
attention and by his fellow countrymen for fulfilling the need. He delights in
doing little things that might spoil his brother's pleasure. Paul isn't an
unreliable narrator, per se (although he is sometimes coyly selective about
certain details), but his observations about his brother and his disdain for
crasser aspects of Dutch culture make him seem sympathetic. At first.
dinner is meant to be a family meeting about a shared crisis, but it takes the
diners a while to get down to business. Serge and his wife Babette had an
argument on the way to dinner and Babette is distraught. Paul, too, has a lot on
his mind, thanks to a discovery he made shortly before he and his wife, Claire,
left for dinner.
Each of the four diners has a different piece of the puzzle,
but none of them know all of it, nor are they aware of how much the others know.
While they dance around the subject, they endure the ingratiating attention of a
fussy maitre d' who explicates every course in excruciating detail. He uses his
pinky to point out the ingredients, which infuriates Paul, and the offending digit
seems to get closer and closer to their food as the evening wears on.
book's structure parallels the meal's five courses, and most of the novel is
spent at the dinner table, though there are occasional bathroom breaks or
flights from the table for cooling-off periods as the discussion intensifies.
Paul and Claire share a kind of telepathy that allows them to communicate across
the table (what daunting bridge players they'd make), and they seem to take
pleasure from using this power to taunt their dining companions.
have fifteen-year-old sons. The boys have gotten themselves into a serious
predicament involving a homeless woman they stumbled upon in an ATM cubicle.
Their grainy images have been repeatedly broadcast on the TV news, though no one
has identified them yet. Further—and potentially more incriminating—video
has been uploaded to YouTube, so it may only be a matter of time before the
story breaks. On the other hand, some other controversy will come along
eventually, relegating this story to the back burner.
The question the four
adults need to address is what to do about the situation. They could ignore it
and hope the story goes away, while meting out appropriate punishment to their
children, or they could go public and admit their children's culpability. Both
approaches have risks, and there is no consensus among the adults. Paul and
Claire are especially irked by the fact that Serge, who feels his political
future is at stake, has decided to take action on his own, without concern for
the repercussions for others.
The Dinner, a runaway bestseller in
Europe, is subversive and challenging. While Paul comes across at first as
level-headed (if quirky and condescending), through a series of flashbacks
readers learn more about his troubled past. He takes medicine to control his
violent nature, which is attributed to a genetic disorder. Did his son inherit
this predisposition towards violence? He was also exposed to some of Paul's
outbursts over the years, so has he also assimilated those aspects of his
father's personality? Paul's un-PC opinions about such matters as pre-emptive
capital punishment forced him out of his job as a history teacher, and some of
these ideas showed up in his son's schoolwork, too, necessitating a
parent-teacher conference that ends poorly.
The novel doesn't resolve
the question about nature versus nurture. Ultimately, Koch seems to want to
explore the lengths to which parents are willing to go to protect the status
quo, though it is couched in a way that makes it seem to be about protecting
their children. The more readers learn, the less likeable the supposedly
sympathetic characters become. Paul and Claire share an astonishing opinion
about the homeless woman's culpability in their sons' dilemma, for example, and
also about the disposability of Serge and Babette's second son, adopted from
Africa. Their happy marriage, of which Paul is suitably proud, has serious
pathologies at its core. Some readers are going to find this book hard to
digest, especially the rather surprising and disturbing way in which the family
crisis is "resolved."
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