A crime served in mouthwatering bites
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.