A restaurant, a dinner and a side-serving of shock
FOUR YEARS ago, after Herman Koch finished writing The Dinner, his sixth novel, the Dutch author asked several friends to read the manuscript before he sent it to his publisher. The response to Koch’s chillingly funny story, about a fateful encounter between two brothers and their spouses in an Amsterdam restaurant, was generally positive.
Each of his readers shared the same reservation, however, about one particular chapter. In the offending section, the novel’s dissembling narrator encourages his son to write a school essay which opposes capital punishment while suggesting that “inhuman” offenders such as paedophile rapists should meet a fatal “accident” before going to trial, which results in a jolting contretemps between the father and his offspring’s headmaster.
“All the people who read the book said I should leave that chapter out, because it’s so grim and horrible, but I thought, well maybe there’s something there that gets on people’s nerves, so I left it in,” says Koch, over sips of espresso in a Dublin hotel, before motioning to the paper on his sofa. “I don’t say they (paedophiles) have to be eliminated, but there is some feeling, especially if it’s your child, that you might think about becoming violent, actually. And of course we say openly we believe in justice and of course I would never do it, it’s stupid to even say it. But it’s the feeling, the emotion is still there.”
Throughout his career as an acclaimed novelist and satirical television star in his native Holland, Koch has been on a mission to unsettle. Judging by the newly published English translation of The Dinner, not to mention the amiably matter-of-fact manner in which he discusses troubling topics, it is a role the 58-year-old writer fills with some aplomb.
A bestseller across Europe since its publication in 2009, Koch’s compelling novel starts out as a coruscating comedy about the affectations of fine dining establishments and the mores of the bourgeois Dutch who frequent them, not least the narrator’s despised elder brother, a liberal politician. But as a shocking act by the brothers’ children comes to light and the first-person narrative becomes more ambivalent, the book veers into more uncomfortable territory, as the parents debate how to deal with the problem. Koch says he did not set out to write such a dark novel, “but it got more disturbing as I was writing it.” Nonetheless, it seems no surprise that the book turned out the way it did.
“I admit there is something in me that I always like, not to shock, but to question the politically correct,” says Koch. “But I think it shouldn’t just turn into a trick. It’s very easy to provoke people, you only have to say some right-wing racist things and they say you’re a reactionary. What I try to do in the books is give just a little bit of a hint of that kind of opinion.”
Though Koch aims to upset the pieties of Dutch life, he is not some far-right polemicist: a radical leftist as a young man, he now characterises himself as moderate, aside from occasional nostalgia for the direct methods of Che Guevara. Indeed, Koch’s upbringing embodies the prosperous, tolerant society that emerged in post-war Holland: his father was the editor of a social democratic newspaper, his mother a jewellery maker. Even while at school, he harboured literary aspirations but for years postponed taking the plunge out of fear of rejection by publishers, working as a translator until his first novel was published in 1985. Even then, his path was circuitous, as he became a television star on Jiskefet, a satirical sketch show which ran for 15 years until 2005.