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.