Breaking bad news over dinner in an expensive and sophisticated restaurant has been a staple in dramas real and fictional. The idea is that announcing your plans to break up, get engaged, marry, divorce, have children and disinherit them will all be accepted with calm and courtesy thanks to the presence of other diners and the formality and restraint of dinner etiquette. I am not so sure that is the right strategy when discussing a crime, but that is exactly what the two couples in The Dinner, by Herman Koch, decided to do.
We know from the back cover before cracking open the book that these two couples have sons that have done something that involves the police. They decided to meet to discuss the crisis facing their families that dinner at a famed restaurant (“I won’t say which restaurant because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.”) perhaps in hope that the formality of the dinner will keep emotions in check.
The Dinner is one of those novels that sneaks up on you. You have this idea of what it is about and who the people are and then slowly, bit by bit, course by course, as you digest more and more of the story Paul Lohman is feeding you. The meal goes on with bottles of champagne and wine for each course and as the meal and the drink is consumed, Paul lets slip more and more revealing information, information and emotions that upend your expectations.
The Dinner is structured about a formal meal that begins with an aperitif, followed by the appetizer, main course, dessert and digestif. Just as a formal meal begins lightly, a teasing introduction, the aperitif introduces us to Paul Lohman and his wife Claire and teases us with Paul’s introduction of his famous brother Serge, a larger than life politician married to the beautiful and equally larger than life, Babette. By the time the other Lohmans and the appetizer course arrives, we know that Paul dislikes his brother Serge, resents his success and his public bonhomie. We see Serge and Babette through his eyes and through our own perceptions of the kind of people who go into politics.
By the time the appetizer is over, we are already uneasy and the main course is full of horrific revelations–and not just about the crime we think they are there to discuss. Dessert comes rich with drama, and anger and explodes with the digestif.
I though this was a masterful book. The conceit of organizing around the meal worked beautifully as each portion of the meal was mirrored by the meatiness of the revelations from the teasing sweetness of the aperitif to the bitterness of the digestif.
The Dinner is also disconcerting as we originally are so thoroughly on the narrator’s “side” even before we know what the sides are. We admire his love of his wife, his feminist sensibility, his distaste for the ridiculous snobbery of the restaurant that seems better suited to a Portlandia sketch than a good meal. We laugh at his descriptions of the waiter pointing out the minuscule servings on the vast emptiness of the plates with his pinky finger, the provenance of everything from the olive oil to the meats and their very “happy lives” spelled out like a gastronome’s gazetteer. Yes, he has us so thoroughly on his side.
And then things fall apart…as they do. We see he is not this sunny, happy man we thought we knew. In fact, he’s quite shocking and so is his son and his wife. The entire family surprises. As does Serge. He is full of surprises.
I cannot recommend this book enough. I read it through in one sitting – as one does with a good meal. I was consumed by it while I was reading, drawn in first by Paul’s charm and then by the dawning realization that something was awry, then by horror and a fascinated wonder at Paul’s certainty that it would all be alright.
It is not perfect, Paul’s deliberate vagueness about medical conditions, both his wife’s and his own, is dubious and strikes a false note for me. I would rather there be less vagueness because it seems a bit invented for this particular story.
This is a disturbing book exploring how much, exactly, parents will do to protect their children, about the respectable bourgeois facades and how much ugliness they mask, about violence and society and our responsibility to each other. Deep themes explored over a single meal.
I also want to commend the excellent translation by Sam Garrett from the original Dutch. It was translated so well it did not feel translated at all. Paul engages in word play and when a translator can successfully translate that love of words and specificity, the bon mot, well, that is magical.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.