The Dinner is the first of Herman Koch’s seven novels that I have read (actually, as far as I can tell it is the only one that has been translated into English) but the Dutch author has already claimed a spot in a sparsely-populated room in KfC’s gallery of reading.
I have an abiding affection for books that successfully establish an engaging “realistic” story and then, dramatically or with careful deliberation, successfully change course and head somewhere far darker. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels are a perfect example — although, after you have read the first one, you know a bizarre twist is inevitable in the others. Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment is one that features a number of sudden left-turns in plot, all accomplished without losing momentum. And while I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl I gather it hinges on a plot disruption so important that every review I have read goes out of its way to avoid a reveal — so it is fitting that Flynn blurbs The Dinner on my copy.
As the title promises, Koch’s book is about a “dinner” and the volume is structured with labelled courses, opening with Apertif and concluding with Digestif, and like any multi-course dinner the interesting tastes of the first few courses acquire increasing boldness and complexity as the experience proceeds.
The Apertif course of the book opens with the first-person narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, heading out for dinner with his brother Serge and his wife, Babette. We know from the start that Paul wants no part of this dinner; Koch builds sympathy for him because this is one of those fancy restaurants where reservations need to be made three months in advance:
A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants. That information is kept on file — I happen to know that. If Mr. L was prepared to wait three months for a window seat last time, then this time he’ll wait for five months for a table beside the men’s room — that’s what restaurants call “customer relations management”.
Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself — he says he thinks of it as a sport. You have restaurants that reserve a table for people like Serge Lohman, and this restaurant happens to be one of them. One of many I should say. It makes you wonder whether there isn’t one restaurant in the whole country where they don’t go faint right away when they hear the name Serge Lohman on the phone. He doesn’t make the call himself, of course; he lets his secretary or one of his assistants do that. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me when I talked to him a few days ago. “They know me there; I can get us a table.”
Except for one important detail, that pretty much sets up the first few “courses” in the book. Paul’s brother is one of those pretentiously successful people who love to exercise their influence — and there are restaurants that are every bit as pretentious that cater to them. Serge had wanted to show his “people” side by meeting Paul and Claire for a drink at a nearby, very unpretentious, cafe where they are regulars before the meal. Paul rejected the invitation because the cafe is Paul and Claire’s kind of place and they don’t want to introduce his phoniness to it: that “important detail” yet to be revealed is that Serge is the leader of the Opposition party in Holland and is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister. Visiting the populist cafe would merely be an exercise in vote-building imagery for him.
Koch has more great fun with the restaurant, which deserves attention. Paul and Claire accept the offer of “the apertif of the house…pink champagne” served with “Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary from…” — only later realizing that the house apertif comes at ten euros a glass. By way of contrast, the cafe serves a full meal of spareribs and fries for 11.50 euros.
All of this makes Paul aggressively uncomfortable — he is making no friend of the maitre d’ with his responses — and Serge and Babette haven’t even arrived yet. The greeting they get on entry provides an indication of the dynamic that will drive the novel’s first few chapters: Serge’s incredible arrogance, management and staff’s fawning response and Paul’s growing anger:
Yes, it had to be the owner, for now he stepped forward to extend a personal welcome to Serge and Babette. “They know me there,” Serge had told me a few days ago. He knew the man in the white turtleneck, a man who didn’t emerge from the open kitchen to shake hands with just anyone.
The guests, however, pretended not to notice; in a restaurant where you had to pay ten euros for the apertif of the house, the rules of etiquette probably didn’t allow for an open display of recognition. They all seemed to lean a few fractions of an inch closer to their plates, all apparently doing their best at the same time to forge ahead with their conversations, to avoid falling silent, because the volume of the general hubbub increased audibly as well.
And while the manager (the white turtleneck had disappeared back into the kitchen) was escorting Serge and Babette past the tables, no more than a barely perceptable ripple ran across the restaurant: a breeze falling across the still-smooth surface of a pond, a breath of wind through a field of grain, no more than that.
Koch is not one of those authors who opts for a sudden turn in his plot — rather he carefully spreads out the seeding of the elements of change as the “normal” one progresses. For example, before leaving home Paul contemplated checking out what was on his 15-year-old son’s cellphone. And we already have a sense that Paul’s distaste for Serge will blossom into something more disturbing, but another element is added when he notices Babette’s eyes, unusually hidden behind tinted glasses:
They were red around the edges, and bigger than normal: unmistakable signs of a recent crying jag. Not a crying jag that had happened a few hours ago — no, crying that had happened just now, in the car, on the way to the restaurant.
The author takes all those no further at this stage — indeed, it will be a number of chapters before we discover what produced them. We also learn that this dinner is not just a social occasion but has an agenda: there is something the two couples “need” to discuss. And that both couples have teenage sons, Michel and Rick. Serge and Babette actually have two: Beau is from Burkina Faso and was supported financially by them there, but is now staying with them in Holland on what Paul calls a “rent-to-own” basis (he may or may not be staying on — the “adoption’ was a gesture from Serge to show his liberality).
All of this is revealed almost in asides to the amusing phoney restaurant action (“The lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and is served with arugula,” said the manager…pointing with his pinky at two minuscule pieces of meat. “The sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.”), accompanied by Paul’s hilarious ongoing commentary on how awful all this is — his prominent brother included.
Slowly but very, very surely, the disturbing plot elements move the restaurant phoniness to the side and introduce a harsh, disturbing reality to the dinner. The sons (Michel and Rick for sure, maybe Beau as well) have done something terrible, perhaps even criminal; it has been captured on a smartphone camera and is now on the internet, with promises of even more to come.
Both sets of parents are aware of part (but not all) of what is behind this — both are also aware that it might also simply slip away out of sight if nothing is done. Once Koch gets all this established (say two-thirds of the way through the novel), we have a four-way dynamic between the parents and a three-way one between the teenagers on just what might or might not be done. Suffice to say, the decent, honorable, option is only one of the many that are available.
It is important to note that Koch does not desert the restaurant story line — he piles these other ones on top of it (not unlike those fancy restaurant entrees that arrive in a carefully-stacked pile of five different “things”, with the hardest to cut on top, if I might be permitted a whining foodie metaphor). The humor of the phoney dining experience is now contrasted directly with the sordidness of what the adults seem willing to do.
The result for this reader was a very well-balanced read, that touched a number of different taste buds. Released only recently in North America (to much media attention), it has now been published in 25 countries — one of those rare best-sellers that strikes my fancy. I’ve been waiting for the Canadian release following two enthusiastic reviews last year from bloggers whom I respect — Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader and Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations — and it was worth the wait. I’ll even be happy to be assigned a table by the men’s room when Koch’s next English translation appears.