A novel by by Herman Koch
The Dinner is is a challenging book mixing up elements of family relationships, mental illness, politics, parenting, adoption, the teaching profession and murder, told through the eyes of a complex and troubled man. It’s not an easy sell, not a comfortable story to experience yet I was pulled through to its conclusion and felt a strange fulfillment despite a cast dominated by unlikeable people doing terrible things.
How did that happen, I ask. Not sure, but I can speak to some tangible aspects of this thin but gripping story.
Any good yarn reveals the asphalt in the road for you to follow. It may happen a foot at at time or a mile at a time at the author’s discretion. The storyteller navigates you down this road providing sufficient detail to keep you interested but still moving along. The road may take you in the wrong direction at times, as with a murder mystery thriller story – “oops, you were thinking this guy was the killer but it looks like he turned up dead.” and you turn around and find the true road. (and the true killer.)
When you look back on that road, that is the narrative thread of the story, the overall thing you remember and either like or dislike.
Some fiction, like this one, reveals the asphalt in patches, segments, but also patches and segments of the ditches and fields surrounding. Sometimes those patches in the ditch come first, sometimes after, sometimes well afterward, reaching backwards down the road you’ve already traveled to reveal an element of ditch that we had gone by.
The result is a very solid road to travel upon, shored up firmly on all sides. The Dinner does this through Paul, our narrator, and his tendency to wander away from what’s going on over to things that he’s reminded of: to flashbacks or opinions on any given circumstance. This makes a firm surface to travel upon and look back on.
The story is segmented by logical breaks you might find in a fine meal: aperitif, appetizer, main course, etc. A nice little story telling device that gives you a reference point in time.
Pieces of story are thrown down that bring us to conclusions, sometimes multiple conclusions. Agonizingly and wonderfully, the story takes its time in confirming which conclusions are correct or even relevant.
As expected the main course is the longest, most detailed, but I was not pleased that this course hardly dwells on the story line – it is primarily a combination of conjecture and backstory.
Judging a book by its summary
I’m not sure if it’s a valid rating point but I have to note that in The Dinner, you have to read to halfway through the book just to catch up with where the sleeve’s summary took us before we even cracked the cover. Hence, it seems a long journey to learn the details of what we already knew.
Early on, our narrator states that he wishes only to relay what he saw and heard this night and not dwell on unimportant things. By the time he says this, we have endured about 40 pages of stuff wherein nothing really happens. It’s no wonder it takes this kind of ink when everything encountered reminds the narrator of some worldly observations, from ornate restaurant washrooms, to personal space-challenged waiters and names our kids call us.
These side commentaries give us a rich image of the narrator, and the author as well, I’m sure.
The book takes a detour through the Paul’s experience leaving his teaching job. I was anxious to get back to the story line through this part, but I’m pleased to say it all ties together.
It’s every author’s prerogative to express opinions in their work. Our narrator, Paul, expresses a lot of opinions, many of them distasteful to most people. Paul has an opinion about the practice of tipping in restaurants that’s reasonable and others on persons of lower intelligence and flawed justice systems that make you blink in incredulity.
Such opinions underpin and seem to undermine the main story thread. Paul is a tough person to relate to; a tough person to like but oddly, at the end, I felt some satisfaction for him and the outcome he sought. A tricky feat for an author to pull off.
Given that the story is set in Holland, the author’s home, I found it an interesting revelation that the Dutch people carry a level self-identity issues as a people situated amongst larger cultures, notably France. This reminded me of Canadian’s struggle to find or maintain their own identity next to America.
The book has been made into three different movies in three different languages. This might be because The Dinner as an interior drama could be faithfully recreated as a movie for a low price. I think the appeal is its tangle of themes, ideas and disreputable characters ultimately zero in on a single concept that even troubled and messed up people can experience real love.