The Dinner by Herman Koch

Dutch writer Herman Koch
Dutch writer Herman Koch

Like most people I read all the words on the outside of a book before I read the words on the inside. My expectations, therefore, for The Dinner were high, as such marketing blurbs are meant to do, and my idea of the plot fairly set: two couples, the husbands are brothers, meet at a restaurant to decide what to do about a horrific crime committed by their sons, cousins, and now on YouTube for all the world to see. And, yes, that is the plot but this book is about much, much more.

Almost a third of the way into the book I wrote this in my notebook:

“Koch curiously plays with time. He begins a scene well into it and then ‘flashes back’ to explain how we got to the point where the scene began. There must be a point to this.”

Yes, there certainly is a point to this. There are three time-threads: the present, the past and the near-past. Koch weaves these threads like plaits, focusing on the first over the second which gives way to the third which in turn fades to give focus back to the first. This allows Koch to mete out information and back-story one little tantilising bit at a time ramping up the tension, and the mystery, and making you yearn for the next bit, and when it comes it isn’t what you expect.

At about the same place as I wrote that above note to myself all I had to go on, plot wise, was one of the fathers, Paul, the first person narrator, had seen something disturbing, we don’t know what, on his son’s computer just before they left for the restaurant, and when he kisses hello his sister-in-law, just after she arrives, he glances under her darkened glasses and notices that she has been crying.

Readers also tend to take sides with the first person narrator because usually, and in this case too, he is so honest, straight-forward, and ‘natural’ in the way he speaks to us, “I don’t know how to put it any more clearly.” It seems it is Paul who is writing this and not Herman Koch. You feel empathy for this man and it is only almost at the end when you realise that there is a reason for this too. Enough said.

The short chapters run numerically through four sections, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif but this simple structure is nowhere near as limiting as you may expect. The action ranges far and wide but always comes back to the restaurant, the pretentious manager, the fawning staff, and the two couples trying to be the ‘happy family’ in a public place all the more threatening because, Paul’s brother, Serge, is a famous polititian. Everyone in the restaurant knows that they are dining in the presence of, maybe, the next Prime Minister. The stakes are high.

But this book is also about family, and about being a man, but most importantly about being a father. However it is not your feelings and thoughts about Paul that remain with you after you get to the ‘End’ it is … again enough said. I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t read it yet.

It’s easy to see how film-makers have been drawn to this book. There is already a Dutch version, an Italian version which takes some liberties with the plot and structure, and there is to be an English language version directed by, and making her directorial debut, Cate Blanchett. Read it before the film comes out.

This is a ripper of a yarn and as Christos Tsiolkas says on the cover, it’s “a punch in the guts but also a tonic.”

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