Two sets of parents have decided to meet at a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam in order to discuss a terrible crime committed by their children, and what their next steps should be: Serge and Babette; Paul and Claire. This, at its simplest and most claustrophobic, is the premise of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner. During the course of the novel, narrated by Paul, we learn everything these couples eat (or don’t) and everything they know (or don’t) with the gradual stripping away of secrets — including quite a few secrets that ought to have stayed under guard.
Interestingly, the crime that the two beloved sons, Rick and Michel, have committed is revealed almost right away.The violence is realistic, and the crime has been instantly uploaded to YouTube, so any lingering hope of secrecy is faint at best. But the real secrets have to do with Paul’s absolute loathing for his brother Serge, a successful politician, and his certainty that everything that Serge touches is a sham. Paul criticizes Serge’s choice of restaurant, his demeanor, his adoption of a son from Burkina Faso (all but a publicity stunt, according to Paul), his summer house in the Dordogne… everything is rotten, false, and bitterly wrong. And he wants revenge for it.
The sheer nastiness of this seething cauldron of anger takes the focus away from the actions of the teens (sure, what they did was horrible, but…) and puts it onto Paul’s personality. He is a former high-school history teacher, retired for medical reasons, and as we see the ways he is prepared to defend his wife and son, we understand more and more about his unreliability. I, for one, though, wasn’t exactly gobsmacked by this; I saw Paul as unreliable from the beginning. The real problem is that Koch provides a way out: Paul has some sort of neurological problem, and perhaps so does Michel. If this book is considering the nature of evil, and thats what it is, these characters just became much less interesting. (I’ll add that the food at the restaurant is much less pretentious than the author seems to think it is. Serge Lohman orders… a steak. Big deal.)
In fact, this leaves only one character left to be interesting, and that’s Claire: she, too, is willing to defend her family under any circumstances, and she’s not “sick.” What does that mean? But Koch doesn’t explore this notion, he just leaves us with the idea. This book is very readable, and it has some quick-and-dirty slices and jabs, but is too oddly shallow to think about the problem of evil or responsibility in any interesting way. I’d leave you with a metaphor about being careful about ordering dessert, but I’ll let you figure that one out.