Monday, June 3, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

[Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett]

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

Dutch writer, Herman Koch’s ‘The Dinner’ unfolds over the course (pun unintended) of a dinner at a fashionable and pricey restaurant in Amsterdam. The narrator and his dinner companions seem at first glance to be the cultivated, affluent Europeans of popular imagination. But beneath the civilized surface are some ugly instincts, and at the heart of the story is a barbaric crime that they have every reason to conceal.

The book’s terse style reflects the Narrator’s character. Paul is tightly wound up, unsparing in his acerbic observations, apparently continuing a lifelong rivalry with his host, the more amiable but obtuse Serge Lohman. Serge is everything that Paul is not - expansive, ambitious, and on the threshold of fame and power. Their spouses, Claire and Babette, make some lukewarm efforts to smoothen out the uncomfortable meeting, but each woman is consumed by her own unvoiced anxiety.

The events leading up to this get-together are disclosed in a series of flashbacks, as the reader realizes that there is more to these couples than meets the eye. The veneer of civilization is ruthlessly flayed off to reveal characters who, with one sole exception, reveal themselves to be bereft of conscience and empathy when their self-interests are threatened.

There is an abundance of dark humor in this unsettling novel, most of it emanating from Paul’s misanthropic commentary. I’m a little conflicted about categorizing this book as satire however. Satire is termed as such when both writer and reader share a knowing wink at an evidently flawed situation. The author’s patently uninflected tone robs the work of an ironic self-awareness that might have served it better.

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