The Ditch: A meandering trip through an ageing mind

Herman Koch’s tale of a man’s descent into paranoia is entertaining if a bit long-winded

Herman Koch

Herman Koch

Published to mixed reviews in the US last year, the Dutch author Herman Koch’s latest novel, The Ditch, is best enjoyed as a meandering trip through the mind of an ageing, troubled man trying to figure out where he stands in his career, marriage and life. Written with Koch’s characteristic humour and sharp eye, the novel is narrated by Robert Walter, the celebrity – at least in his own head – mayor of Amsterdam. After watching his wife, Sylvia, have a cursory conversation with an alderman at a public event, Robert becomes convinced of an affair. His descent into paranoia makes for an entertaining if sometimes long-winded read.

Uncertainty is the cornerstone of the novel – is Sylvia cheating or is Robert imagining an affair? – and Koch brings it into his narrative in many inventive ways. There is a dizzying number of subplots: Robert’s parents, in their 90s, have decided to kill themselves while they’re still of sound mind and body; his best friend, Bernhard, is a genius with complicated ideas about the finite nature of the universe; his daughter, Diana, loses her cat; and a journalist unearths a photo of Robert as a young man beating up a police officer during protests against the Vietnam war.

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