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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.

Serge's 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Both couples 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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