When Serge Lohman, the Netherlands’ favourite candidate for prime minister, dines at an exclusive restaurant with his younger brother Paul, we know there’s scrofulous business ahead in Herman Koch’s grim and perturbing novel, The Dinner.
Paul Lohman, Koch’s misanthropic narrator, alerts us early to how the night will pan out: “when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called ‘top’ restaurants.” An appealingly off-kilter remark, for sure, but one whose chummy, conversational tone will seem not only inadequate, in light of the story’s belligerence, but also implausible. Paul, it turns out, is the book’s least loveable psychopath.
Accompanying the brothers at dinner are their wives – Babette, the not-so-gentle would-be First Lady, and Claire, a no less forbidding operator – and the couples share around their animus, some of it old, some as freshly sourced and overwrought as the food they’re about to be served.
The four have come together, however, to attend to some dire housekeeping. Their sons – beloved teenagers, hot-housed, yet morally dissolute – have been caught on film doing something unconscionably bad. For the first two thirds of the novel, Koch’s interrogations of these matters, of parental responsibility, of the social mores of Holland’s educated classes, are profoundly compelling. When pushed, what will a mother or father justify in defence of their child? What is a tested love really made of? How far and wide do a First World citizen’s privileges and responsibilities extend?
But when Koch swings from gritty realism to satire, mercilessly skewering the various shibboleths his narrator detests, the writing turns from being satisfyingly edgy to bleak, then alienating, and on down, to flat-out unpalatable.
Precisely what category of ‘crazy’, for instance, is the narrator whose revolt includes beating his son’s school principal to a pulp for questioning his behaviour, and for believing in such things as “global warming” and the “eradication of all war and injustice”; whose antagonism to “spoilt” homeless people in a country with a “safety net” is so nasty it sets your teeth on edge; and whose gruff charm illuminates the first half of a book, then pitches it into deep shade in the second?
Lines this fine, between anti-hero and hero, make for queasy reading. Is it so old-fashioned to hope that even satire’s moral compass has working hands? Are we still in the important realm of real people, real brothers, politicians and lost boys? Or have we just swallowed a phantasmal banquet that takes up internal room but can’t be digested?
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