After finishing an excellent German thriller last week, I moved to a different kind of thriller, a Dutch novel named The Dinner by Herman Koch.
So, the Netherlands – or Holland, as some people erroneously call it – is my 11th literary destination in my summer reading challenge, Around Europe in 14 Books.
This novel is a different kind of thriller than the Fitzek book I read last week because, although crime is involved, there is nothing to solve; there is only the problem with how to deal with the crime and its perpetrators. There are also the elements of mystery and psychological tension.
But above all, I call this novel a ‘social’ thriller. Check out my review below to understand why.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #11: the Netherlands
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Original name: Het diner (Dutch)
Author: Herman Koch
Translator: Sam Garrett
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Genre: mystery, psychological thriller, literary fiction
Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness – the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened…
As the title and the blurb imply, the playing field for the four main characters – Paul Lohman and his wife Claire, his brother Serge Lohman and his wife Babette – is a dinner table. Precisely at a table in Serge’s favourite posh restaurant in Amsterdam, just a little distant from Paul’s favourite café. A café for “ordinary people”, unlike Serge who is no ordinary man as he’s the top candidate for the next general election. Therefore, he’s easily recognisable in public and so he has to keep up the appearance of the nice, trustworthy man who could be the new Dutch prime minister.
Appearance is one of the keywords here. Several novels in the history of literature feature the theme of appearance against reality and this Dutch novel is no different. The keeping up of appearances starts within this family. As we immediately learn from the first-person narration of Paul, he and his older brother Serge are complete opposites. Paul detests Serge’s notoriety and how all his actions seem to depend on the public’s consensus. There’s also a significant difference in their wives’ personality and between the two couples.
Naturally, these tensions are bound to mount up during the dinner. The masks are bound to fall. However, Paul engages himself on another level of social commentary, one about the habits of people in restaurants. He passes remarks and judgements on the diners who feign to ignore the famous Serge when he enters the restaurant, on the staff’s attitude and, of course, on the exorbitant prices and tiny servings of such posh restaurants. This is one of the reasons why I’ve dubbed this as a ‘social’ thriller. Personal and social relations are tensed until the time for the showdown comes.
The two couples haven’t met for dinner only to chat about trivial things about their daily lives. They are supposed to discuss an important issue concerning their children: Michel (Paul and Claire’s son) and Rick (Serge and Babette’s son). The two kids were involved in a heinous act, a crime that caught the public’s attention. Their parents are now keen to discuss on how to protect their children and their futures. Or perhaps, Serge is more interested in saving his face as a politician.
So the social commentary expands one more time. It moves from the close-knit group of the family, to the environment-specific group of people in the restaurant, to the global society in general. The novel turns into an observation and a critique of topics such as personal vs. social justice, punishment, the nature of evil, and moral relativism. Koch, through Paul’s narrating voice, exposes the human tendency towards prejudice and indignation, only to turn the tables in the end, in making the reader question all these negative traits. It seemed to me that neither conservatives nor liberals get out scot-free after considering these arguments. While reading all this, I was reminded of two Japanese works dealing with the notion of justice and punishment: the novel Confessions by Kanae Minato and the manga Death Note.
When it comes to first-person narration, the reader is forced to consider the veracity of what the narrator is telling. In this case, Paul Lohman seems to be the typical unreliable narrator. Even well before his backstory with his personal issues is exposed, one can sense that something is not all right with this man. He is quick to judge the persons around him – like almost everyone – but his thoughts and attitude towards his brother Serge make him appear like any jealous sibling. Nevertheless, Paul engages with the readers from the very beginning, sucking them into his storytelling. Although, having said that, he plays a game of withholding information and then uncovering some of it. This is how the novel opens and how it proceeds for the most part:
We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.
I’ve read a couple of reviewers on Goodreads saying that none of the characters are likeable. That’s quite true; Paul the narrator sounds annoying most of the time and the others do not offer anything better. But I think that’s all right for this kind of novel and the themes it tackles. It just shows how, beneath the appearance of a benign-looking person, there’s a good chance of finding a questionable character.
My only serious issue with this novel, which forced me to lower my rating by half a star, is the massive dump of backstory in the central part of the narration. The book is divided into menu-themed sections: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. Thankfully, not all the action happens at the dinner table, as at some point close to the Main Course, the company is split. However, it is during this central part of the book that the author decides to dedicate entire chapters to the past history of Paul and Claire. The problem is not that the backstory is uninteresting but that it felt like it distracted me too much from the original plot and setting. I wish it could have been integrated better within the main storyline, just as other past information was blended in during previous chapters.
If there had been less backstory, I could very well see this book reduced to a novella and maybe even see it staged in the theatre. Restricting the action solely to the dinner table could create a magnificent atmosphere of psychological tension, but that’s just my opinion. The story is also filmworthy, and it’s not just me who thinks that because it has been already adapted into a Dutch film, an Italian film, and next year an American version will be released with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan and Laura Linney.
I suggest readers to give The Dinner a try if they are interested in a different kind of thriller. A thriller which is not based on twists, shocks or a chase, but a thriller that offers food for thought on important social arguments. It might not be for everyone and it is nothing exceptional, but this novel is certainly worth a try.