Published by Hogarth
Publication date: February 12th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Mystery
Dinner out at a nice restaurant. The company is iffy- your boorish brother who, nonetheless, is the frontrunner for prime minister, and his wife. Who he is to the public is not who he is as your brother. So, it’s with trepidation that Paul Lohman and his wife Claire head out for what is likely to be an evening of pro forma conversation about jobs and kids. Neither a subject Paul wishes to discuss, as only hours before they leave the house he discovers a disturbing video on his fifteen-year-old son’s phone; a video that involves his nephew as well.
It is with this sense of social unease that the reader enters The Dinner. Herman Koch begins his novel with what seems to be nothing more than a family obligation and some family tension. It is evident with every word, motion, and thought that Paul dislikes his brother, Serge, so the likelihood is that this will turn into a sly, darkly comic look at sibling rivalry. In a sense, one has settled into the meal. How shocking then, that as the main course arrives, Koch slams the mind into high gear by introducing a situation that would seem improbable if not so carefully set-up and presented. Paul’s cutting wit and disdain for his brother becomes only a small part of his personality while other, more unsettling aspects reveal themselves.
While following the standard course of a meal—aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, digestif—Koch takes the reader into a world that is anything but standard. And unlike a meal which leaves one satisfied and comforted this book is deeply unsettling. As the courses progress more and more of the situation with Serge and Paul’s sons is revealed. At the same time, the truth of each character begins to come out. As Paul says
Once again, I had the feeling I was witnessing something that only obliquely had anything to do with reality.
But that is what makes this book so disturbing; everything that happens could and/or has happened in our world. It is only seeing it from such a personal perspective that makes it that much more upsetting. The tension increases until The Dinner is as nerve wracking as a political thriller. This is not a book that will be read and forgotten. Instead, it needs to be discussed and chewed through carefully, for inasmuch as the stomach will be tense from Koch’s audacious prose, the mind will be starving for answers.