The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?

Why is this book compared to Gone Girl? It’s nothing like it. The Dinner belongs to a totally different calibre. If I have to compare it to something, then I’d say, reading it conjures up Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Are there really some in our society who think themselves so superior that they ought to be above the law? The law, after all, is a human construct. Can we not bend it to serve our own interest, when the interest is out of love for our son, or wife, or husband?

The Dinner

The Dinner is Dutch writer Herman Koch’s sixth novel. It has sold over a million copies and translated into twenty-one languages. The book deals with subjects that are soul-searching: The dichotomy between nature and nurture; how much of our being and psyche is hereditary? What portions of our actions are a result of our own waywardness as lost souls? As I was reading, the movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011) came to mind. However, what is not present at least in the Kevin movie is the accessory after the fact component.

The Dinner starts off with quite an original concept. The author parallels the story development with a gourmet dinner two couples are having in an upscale restaurant. The Apéritif and the Appetizer are the foretaste of what we will get for the Main Course. What appears to be petty, disgruntled complaints and personal biases of the narrator’s in the early chapters turn out to be only a light appetizer, for the main course is when a horrific crime is revealed. The ‘horror’, though, isn’t limited to the crime per se, for it is chilling to read how everyone involved deals with the aftermath.

The main course is a gripping thriller based on a real-life crime. After reading the novel, I googled and did find the report on it. Koch tells the story effectively with his straight-forward descriptions written with journalistic detachment, and incisive observation as the notes of a perceptive psychoanalyst. Further, he informs us with the detailed thought process of his narrator. Here is a disturbing look at someone who is capable to love his wife and son deeply but hates everyone else that crosses his path. This is more than a thriller though, for the moral dilemma or rather, its characters’ lack of sensitivity to it, is what makes the book provocative.

I don’t think we are expected to ‘like’ or even ‘identify’ with any of the characters. The book is effective in that we are left as observers. And with that, hopefully, we just might think a little deeper into issues concerning our humanity, and in the next generation of humans we bring up. How much are our children a result of our parenting and examples, how much are they a result of their own choosing and decisions? Can nature or nurture excuse us from our errors? If Freud were around today, The Dinner just might be on his reading list. But, would he be able to offer a remedy to save us from ourselves?

The ending shares a similar thought with the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). Now, as soon as I said this, some of you familiar with the movie might think I’ve dropped a spoiler in here. So, that’s the farthest I’ll go in describing the plot and details of The Dinner. The aftertaste may be haunting, but it is something that we should face as a human society.

Today is the beginning of Lent. I always feel such is an opportune time not so much about refraining from pleasure like abstaining from going to fancy restaurants for gourmet dinners, but in dwelling on the meaning of Easter. The Dinner may just have, inadvertently, reinforced the notion that we as individuals in a human society do need some form of saving grace after all.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett, published by Hogarth, 2012, 320 pages.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?”

  1. This book stayed with me long after reading it. I was so absorbed in the parents’ reactions to their sons, to one another. It occurs to me that the restaurant was such a perfect setting, one which focused on appearance. The empty plate, for example, (although it is being served with food upon it) shows how much emptiness lay within the moral integrity of one set of parents. It’s also interesting that with that set,each one proved his and her capability of violence. It wasn’t limited to the boys alone by any means.


    1. Bellezza,

      Thanks for your eloquent comment. You’ve added an important point… the empty plates, a good metaphor: the expensive menu, elegant presentation but lacking in substance, empty souls. It is difficult to write a proper review of the book I feel without giving out spoilers. However, I think we have dropped enough hints to show what kind of a book it is, definitely not ‘just a thriller’. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.


    1. JoAnn,

      Thanks, but same here… I just wanted to know what happened next. I was gripped by the narrator’s sensitivity at first, not knowing anything about the backstory. Definitely a book to be reread. A movie adaptation out already. It was screened at TIFF last Sept., but I missed it.


  2. Now I know I want to read it. If both you and bellezza commend it, it surely will be worth it.

    Interesting that you mention the nature/nurture debate. I spent this morning at work thinking about how families keep secrets, and how two of the decisions I made once I’d reached adulthood revealed both of those secrets. After the revelations of those secrets, I couldn’t help wondering – are even our beliefs and our deepest inclinations purely our choice, or do we bear the decisions of other ancestors in our deepest being?

    Well, there’s a post coming, so I’ll not spoil that. But I’m bumping this book up. My first impulsive thought that I’d want to read it has been confirmed.


    1. Linda,

      This book should not take you too long to read. Maybe you’d like to savour it as ‘research’ for your post? Anyway, I’d be very curious to know what you think of it… and to read your post. Yes, what we see in families are the façade, what’s inside could be locked up for generations. I think you’ll enjoy this one, not so much about secrets, but about the choices we make and their ripple effects.


  3. I just read about the movie adaptation coming up. (Or did you post in in your TIFF or novels to movies post? Or both?). But more recently read it, too. I don’t remember, though, who is in it. It sounds fascinating — definitely more than a thriller. Might get to this over the next eight weeks, but first up is Goldfinch, our book club read, which should arrive tomorrow. With all those pages, I may not even finish it by book club!


    1. Yes Jeanie, I mentioned about the film a couple of times because that’s one of several I’d missed at TIFF. I didn’t go into its reviews or ratings, but from reading the book, which is made up of very deep and sensitive internal monologues, I think it’s going to be one major challenge to turn that into a visual medium. However, as I always say, books are books, films are films. I’ll definitely check it out if it ever comes into Cowtown.


  4. I would be afraid to identify with any character whose morality is compromised but, as you say, the reader is left as an observer here, and that makes it more appealing to me. I am really very interested in reading this now, after Bellezza’s and your reviews, as human reaction to crime is something I deeply feel is a very important thing for anyone to look into.


    1. Claire,

      No, not identifying hopefully. Mind you, not all of them are ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. Some may be more prone to hurting others to save oneself or those one loves, but there’s this other couple at the dinner who we are less deviant (for lack of a better term). I’d be curious to know your response if you choose to read it. I hope you will. 😉


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