Interpreting the Menu: The Significance of Herman Koch’s The Dinner

DSCN0660 - Version 2Koch, Herman. The Dinner. [Amsterdam: Ambo Anthos,

2009] Trans. Sam Garrett, London: Atlantic, 2012.

This is a brilliant but highly disturbing book. I cannot say I enjoyed it. However, I did appreciate the craft underlying the novel. Given its disturbing qualities, I doubt if I will ever reread The Dinner even though it is well written and intensely thought provoking in the questions it raises about loyalty, social inequality, race, family dynamics, genetics, and mental illness.

DSCN0660 - Version 2Koch handles his intertwined chronologies well, and the analepses contribute to the building tension within the work. In the way in which seemingly mundane, even banal, situations such as a family dinner at a restaurant become eerily menacing and dangerous, The Dinner reminds me of a Hitchcock film.

DSCN0660 - Version 5While the events recalled in the novel are themselves shocking, perhaps the most disturbing element of the book is how Koch builds our sympathy for the narrator. After all, aren’t there times when we have faced the shining white expanse of the oversized but almost empty restaurant plate surrounding the elegant little morsels, probably resting on julienned vegetables and drizzled with something, and been irritated by pretension? Does it really matter where the cold-pressed olive oil or the organically raised chard came from? And then there’s the obsequious yet patronizing service in some of those places. Aren’t we also guilty of being irritated by the sort of person who because he was “against Bush had his heart in the right place, and could behave like a boorish asshole towards anyone around him” (269). We, too, make sweeping generalizations. We, too, suffer sibling rivalries, distrust politicians, and are touched by prejudices. We have to admit to these flaws, and such admission is disturbing. However, we know that we could never behave as the Lohmans do. Or could we?

DSCN0660 - Version 2It’s been suggested that the novel is satire. I’m not sure. While there were times when I found myself in sympathy with the narrator, I never really laughed with him or at him. Does one laugh at Juvenalian satire? Not always. I expect satire to be hyperbolic not only in the extreme events it relates or advocates but also in its language. I didn’t find such overstatement in The Dinner. Unfortunately, some of the events that occur in the novel are happening in our cities now. But they don’t happen to people like us. Or, at least, we think they don’t. We may be wrong.

DSCN0660 - Version 5The Dinner turns a mirror on our smug, apparently civilised, middle-class lives and reveals horror. What kind of society actually allows the events of The Dinner to happen? Just how far is too far? At what point does an individual’s sickness infect those around him or her? At what point does a society’s moral shift become not horrific but reasonable?

DSCN0660 - Version 2In the novel, Paul Lohman asks what we should do with the “inhuman humans” (271) with whom we share the world. I’m not sure that Koch gives us any answer. Instead, he makes us uneasy. Although the setting for The Dinner is the Netherlands, the Dutch background, on one level, is not essential to the novel. However, on another level, it is of prime importance given the Dutch people’s first hand experience with a society that had rationalized its inhumanity. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands is not forgotten.

DSCN0660 - Version 5In the Lohman family dynamic, especially among Paul, Claire, and Michel we see a horrendous possibility. Initially, we sympathise with them, identify with them. Then they appal us. And they could be the family next door, that nice couple at the next table. In the “right” circumstances, they could be us.        DSCN0660 - Version 4

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