A crime served in mouthwatering bites

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

FICTION: The Dinner By Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett Atlantic, 309pp. £12.99

OVERPRICED restaurants tend to say more about the idiots who frequent them than about the food on offer. Paul, the sardonic narrator of the Dutch writer Herman Koch’s astute and intelligent, internationally bestselling morality tale, The Dinner, has little time for foodies and sets out, at least initially, to poke fun at the pretensions of staff programmed to introduce each ingredient as if it were an exotic flower. Long before such feasts materialise, however, there is the ritual waiting period: “This particular restaurant is one where you have to call three months in advance – or six, or eight, don’t ask me. Personally, I’d never want to know three months in advance where I’m going to eat on any given evening, but apparently some people don’t mind.”

Paul makes it clear that he has little interest in the meal, which is the idea of Serge, his successful brother, a likely next prime minister with social airs, including the French holiday home.

Koch has huge fun setting the scene, and it is easy to simply sit back and enjoy Paul ridiculing the unctuous manager’s reverential attitude to the prandial splendour the lucky diners are about to experience.

Even better are Paul’s barbed asides about the sibling he seems to dislike. All of which makes one wonder why on earth he would agree to spend an evening with him, and under the scrutiny one expects in a public place. Yet Koch directs this irresistible satire with commendable control and precision timing, and makes tremendous use of nuance. (In addition, he is lucky enough to have Sam Garrett, who also translates Frank Westerman, on his team.) All is not quite well; Paul seems distracted. Something is going on, and it seems to involve his only child, a self-contained teenage boy named Michel.

Serge appears to enjoy the trappings of fame and, in addition to his own son and daughter, has adopted an African boy. Cynics, such as our narrator, suggest that Serge used the adoption for political gain. Yet prime minister in the making or not, Serge and his wife, Babette, love him.

When the couples, who are also united by being the parents of two sons, cousins, who have committed a heinous crime but have thus far avoided detection, attempt to discuss it, no one speaks directly.

Suppressed anger underlies this engaging book. Koch skilfully explores its several varieties, from defiance to downright violence.

Comparisons have been made with Christos Tsiolkas’s hugely overrated international bestseller The Slap (2008), but The Dinner is far superior. Not only is it much funnier; it is, for all its wit, profoundly, disturbingly serious.

Whatever about the outrageous behaviour of the teenagers, the real issue is the reaction of the parents, particularly that of Paul’s wife, Claire. Koch is a canny observer of humankind, and this shapes the characterisation. Each of the players in this novel emerges with a fully defined personality, even the manager. Paul himself is the stuff of a psychiatric conference as well as being, like it or not, pretty much an Everyman figure. There is a scene in a bicycle shop whose staggering realism will make many readers gulp.

Koch allows us to pick sides, only to cause us then to regroup and reassess. His dialogue has a Pinteresque edge.

The Dinner is his sixth novel, and it has the instinctive quality of his countryman Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2006, English translation 2008), one of the finest novels yet to win the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. The Dinner is both unbelievable and utterly credible. Slowly but surely, Koch wipes the collective smirk off our faces. Yet the laughs keep coming in the shape of Paul’s observations.

It takes until the dessert course for Babette to release the conflicting tensions of resentment, fear, pride and open dislike.

As the dust bearing the weight of the multiple truths that have seeped out attempts to settle, Paul asks, “what kind of tip are you supposed to leave at a restaurant where the bill makes you burst out laughing?”, and muses on the contrasting nature of customers the world over.

He suggests that the Dutch don’t tend to complain, perhaps because complaints are not tolerated. He himself does protest, habitually, but then, as is revealed over the course of the narrative, Paul, a former teacher, is different – or is he? “People were afraid to say anything. They excused themselves a thousand times over, even if they were only asking for the salt. Dark-brown green beans that tasted of liquorice, stewed meat stuck together with rubbery nerves and chunks of cartilage, a cheese sandwich with stale bread and green spots on the cheese: without a word the Dutch diner grinds it all to a pulp between his teeth and swallows it down. And when the waiter comes by to ask if they are enjoying their meal, they run their tongues over the fibres and moulds stuck between their teeth and nod.”

Interestingly, there is a radical shift of sympathy. In a novel that initially seems intended simply to debunk the cult of trendy eating, Herman Koch, in effect, brilliantly questions what anyone would do in such a situation. He allows his narrator full freedom to lampoon the moral option while causing the reader to shuffle away and wonder what they would do if faced with a similar dilemma – but not without having had a wonderful time first.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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