Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

I heard about this novel from my Dutch friends who raved about both the novel and the author – Herman Koch – who is a bit of a celebrity in his native Holland, and an actor in the long running satirical comedy series Jiskefet.  Okay, Dutch and sense of humour?  Maybe not so much - it's a bit like recommending a French bathing product.  Nevertheless,  when I picked up the book I still expected it to be amusing and it didn't disappoint.  But it’s also much more than that. Yes, the dinner is beautifully observed and bitingly funny - but it also leaves a disturbing taste in your mouth.  Even as you’re laughing, you’re uncomfortably complicit in the dark tale that unfolds over the course of the meal shared by two brothers Serge and – the narrator - Paul Lohman and their wives.

The couples meet to discuss their errant children and even before they arrive at the fashionable restaurant, Paul’s internal musing on whether to shave, or not to shave, raise a smile of recognition in the reader; even if the reader is me, a woman, who has – despite all claims to the contrary, and the nickname of Wolfgirl – no experience of facial hair.  What I do have professional experience of, however, is restaurants.  In the past I’ve eaten, not merely for recreational purposes, but for three years it was my job to eat out for the FT. This novel wickedly sends up the preoposterous rituals of dining in a high-end restaurant where people go to see and be seen and the food is presented with religious ritual and pomp.  When Koch begins to describe the absurd posturing of the maitre d’, the listing of specials, the over-eager replenishment of the water glass, the wine-tasting, you think for a second you’re reading A.A. Gill at his best – and worst.  This is especially true because Paul, our hapless diner, is just, well not to put too fine a point on it, not very nice.  His brother Serge however, a well-known politician, is worse.  At first you can’t help but sympathise with Paul for having to live up to this pretentious, more successful, prig.  But, of course, that’s not the whole story…

I’m not giving too much away when I say both the evening and the families soon begin to unravel, revealing a very sinister act that soon shows both brothers in their true light and raises the questions about nature vs nurture that all parents ask themselves.  How far would you go to protect your children?  Do you think your children could ever be capable of a horrific act?  Surely not?

One night, many years ago when my son aged around 13 was at a sleepover with a nice Catholic boy whose parents were remarkably down to earth for the chi-chi little private school they both attended, my husband and I were awakened in the middle of the night by furious ringing on the door bell.

Every parent knows that this is never a good thing.  As we hurriedly dressed and rushed down two flights of stairs to the door, I did a quick inventory of the children; the smallest was asleep, the elder boy – who followed us down to see what the commotion was about - was obviously safe.  My elder daughter was out with friends god knows where, and of an age to raise anxiety, but at least the younger son was okay, tucked up in the house of God in West London.  My heart was racing as my husband opened the door – we had already seen the silhouette of two men in black wearing helmets , but nothing quite prepares you for the anxiety of a policeman’s knock in the middle of the night.  You immediately think a child must be dead, then a parent – and under grizzly circumstances.  Why else would they send a police delegation?  What I certainly didn’t expect was to see my tear stained son’s face, cowering behind the officers.  Apparently, after the holy family had gone to sleep, their son and mine had let themselves out of the house and been caught tagging – writing graffiti on a wall near his friend’s house – in junkie heaven in Paddington.  Tagging!  My husband and I repeated weakly.  The child didn’t even have the sense to really ‘tag’ but had helpfully written his own name.

We took him inside gave him a sound talking to and sent him to bed.  Then as my husband and I went to bed, I expressed a profound relief.  ‘I know,’  said my husband, ‘part of it was shock, but I just wanted to laugh.  I thought he’d robbed a house or been caught selling drugs or buying them or something.’ 

Well, suffice to say that the kids in The Dinner are involved in something more serious and sinister than daubing on a wall.  We grounded our son who was sensible enough to know that having the name Hussein, even then, was Not-a-Good-Thing and that the only reason he got off with a caution was because he talked posh and went to a private school.  The Catholic kid prayed about his crime with his parents, and later became a pot head and was expelled from the school.  

What happens here?  Well, it’s a little different, and very morally ambiguous.  And if this book doesn’t send you racing to Google genetic illnesses as you race through the pages to the end, then I’ll eat my napkin.

And if you find one that matches let me know because despite spening a whole morning on the web researching(when I should have been working), I didn’t find one – which as far as I’m concerned, is the story’s only flaw.