- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-13: 978-0385346856
“I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up. The café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that’s too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air.”
Herman Koch, The Dinner
Herman Koch’s The Dinner received much pre-pub attention via usual industry buzz upon its 2013 publication. It was a sleeper hit in the U.S., an international best seller, a book group darling proclaimed dark, chilling and beautifully written. The Dinner put Belgian-born Herman Koch on the American literary fiction map.
The premise is this: two couples – a man and his wife, his brother and sister-in-law – meet for dinner to discuss a looming disaster threatening to ruin the lives of each of their 15-year old sons. The man who narrates the story, Paul Lohman, is a sociopath with a track record of exhibiting uncontrolled rage, resulting in physical violence against multiple victims, his wife a willing, yielding enabler. The other man, the sociopath’s brother Serge Lohman, is heir-apparent to the office of prime minister of the Netherlands. As for his wife, she’s a necessary seat warmer for her politically ambitious husband. A public figure should reflect family values.
The sociopath is an unreliable narrator, disconnected from reality,. Unable to distinguish horrific, narcissistic and violent behavior from appropriately assertive action, he attacks anyone who opposes or irritates him. The man slaps, punches, beats and clobbers multiple other characters, nearly killing them, yet remains a free man. He loses his teaching job, but suffers no other consequences.
Koch’s plot doesn’t allow for the distraction of the legal ramifications of Paul Lohman’s crimes. He is hyper-focused on his themes: how far would you go to save your child, no matter how heinous the crime, and is there a hierarchy of worth placed on the lives of human beings from different social classes.
The violent behavior of our narrator directly correlates to his son’s feeling of entitlement, his lack of compunction the reason the boy grows up to exhibit the same violent behavior. Paul Lohman’s child, as well as his nephew, the 15-year old child of the prime minister to be, have together perpetrated an act so horrific it has the potential to ruin both their futures, not to mention sealing the doom of the politician. And it’s at this dinner Serge and Paul have met to determine how they will proceed.
Paul Lohman, Koch reveals, was born with a gene causing his unbridled rage and tendency toward violence. The disorder isn’t expressly stated, but its heritability is made clear. A generation after Paul Lohman’s birth, a test exists to determine the presence of this gene. Should his wife have had the amniotic fluid tested, and did she without Paul’s knowledge? The question is left open. And, if she’d had the test, had she rejected the opportunity to abort her son? Whatever the truth, it has become moot.
The moment of truth comes to a head at the conclusion of the dinner, the two brothers facing off. There is much to lose no matter which course they choose. If the boys are turned in, the career of the prime minister, as well as their futures, are ruined. If the truth is covered up, it will loom large over all their heads, not to mention denying justice for the victim of the crime. There is no redemption here.
Koch is a brilliant writer. His prose is clear and beautifully written, the sense of menace if not quite chilling is a strong presence. These are morally bankrupt, repulsive characters. The darkness is unrelenting, which would explain why I was so drawn to the book. Indeed, why so many readers were.
I enjoyed how deeply Koch explored Paul Lohman’s twisted mind, following the man’s obsessive thinking, analyzing every action going on around him. From his complex personal history to the food as it arrived at the table, Paul Lohman’s internal monologue was a constant, occasionally comical and often unpredictable rant. Paul Lohman is a character I loved to hate.
I read his later novel, The Swimming Pool, in 2014 which I reviewed here. Though not quite as enthusiastically received by critics, I preferred it. It’s the same sort of book, exploring amoral characters who do bad things to each other.
Having read two works by Koch I’m a fan, though not without reservations. Unquestionably a writer of great skill, I’m not convinced the press he’s received is accurate. It’s overblown, typical marketing hype. But I wouldn’t let it stop me from reading his books, or recommending him to readers who enjoy exploring evil, amoral characters. His works are absorbing and, if not completely unpredictable, they offer enough twists to keep the reader guessing.