Book Review: The Dinner [by Herman Koch]

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The Dinner by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett) can perhaps be called something of a mystery and something of a psychological thriller, but not wholly one or the other. Two couples in Amsterdam sit down to eat dinner at a very expensive book-months-in-advance restaurant, where, if the narrator is to be believed, the food you order is mostly plate and a small mishmash of luxurious products sourced from various places in the world. It’s the kind of food I see on cooking shows sometimes where they put fifty ingredients into a dish and I’m only aware of what ten of those are, and the end result is something you could eat in one bite. Anyway, I’m going to try and discuss this without spoiling much of the plot, but probably avoid this if you’re worried.

The book is divided into five parts, each named after a meal course. The two brothers (Paul, the narrator, and Serge Lohman and their wives, Claire and Babette) are ostensibly here for a catch-up session, but they’re three courses in before they actually begin to discuss the real issue: the horrific thing their sons have done. Paul and Claire seem to be financially well-off, but Serge is the kind of rich-and-famous you can expect from a man who’s almost guaranteed to be the winning prime ministerial candidate.

No character in this book is likeable. I have no problem with that, but I’m aware that some people do. For a few chapters, Paul seems like a character who, even with some glaring faults, might be slightly relatable. This doesn’t last long. With Paul’s perspective – he is definitely an unreliable narrator – it is difficult to get more than a glimpse of the other characters at first, as they are heavily coloured by his opinions. But by the end of the book conversation and dialogue does give us more than we started with.

Many of the events which are major plot points don’t take place in the restaurant itself – they take place in Paul’s flashbacks or memories, or outside the restaurant (this is not to say the restaurant isn’t an important locus for the story, it is, but a lot happens outside of it as well). There are one or two plot discrepancies where things didn’t add up, but by and large the story (whether believable or otherwise) stays on track. The thing I enjoyed most about it, actually, is that there is a possibility for multiple interpretations in the ‘gaps’ Koch leaves. It would probably make for a decent book club read, even if you aren’t blown away by it.

I’m struggling to come up with other things to say, but like a lot of people who read the novel (on goodreads), I was interested, but not really overwhelmed. The psychological factor that starts to creep in and then takes over the whole novel (this is a vague way of saying it, but being specific would require giving away a lot of plot) is compelling enough to keep reading. It gives a kind of casual insight into the way people who do horrible things then go on to justify them to the point of being able to convince others.

My biggest complaint is actually partly with the psychological factor – with regard to the connection Koch makes between mental illness and violence. I’m aware this is one case in one novel, and that this is a work of fiction, but we live in a time when these stereotypes are used to demonise people who already have too much to deal with. Numerous studies have been done to prove that the mental illness has no correlation with violence. Perpetuating this myth through contemporary literature might actually affect the attitudes of uninformed minds. Koch also manipulates biological connotations of this fictional “illness” to reach a similarly untruthful conclusion. Everything about the way he handled this pervasive element of the story felt wrong.

In retrospect, this probably ruined the book for me. I couldn’t morally reconcile myself to this particular brand of careless writing that might have negative effects for real people, that might injure real people living with mental illness. Apart from this, the novel wasn’t really that impressive, but nor was it the opposite. It isn’t entirely without merit and is quite readable. Some of the twists might even be memorable. But as a whole, it failed to really leave a mark. I’d shelf it as middling.

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