“There are two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.” - Nigel Powers, in Austin Powers: Goldmember “After Dinner one can forgive anybody even one’s own relations” - Lady Caroline, in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance
Both of these quotes are completely apt for a review of The Dinner, by Herman Koch, a Dutch author writing about a dysfunctional family set around a dinner, as the title would suggest.
I have always enjoyed a good restaurant meal with beautiful food and companions who enjoy conversation and a drink. Can’t beat it really, especially in the long format.
In the process of experiencing the meal as time goes on, you become one with the event itself and yes, you can forgive anyone and anything…until the next morning that is, when the piper has to be paid.
You always start out with good intentions but as you call for more wine things can sometimes get out of kilter.
When I started into Herman Koch’s The Dinner, it seemed to be all about a meal and past meals. Memories were evoked of the halcyon days as a young journalist going out to long lunches and dinners to discuss the world and what meant to us all. That’s how I slipped into the plot of this book for a chapter or two.
The book is set up as a meal and its various courses starting with the aperitif, and then on and on.
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy the book. The style is almost Salinger-esque, a strongly descriptive, first-person analysis of a dysfunctional situation with an unexpected sarcastic humour that made me laugh out loud.
However, as I progressed I started not to enjoy this tome so much. The constant analysis of the situation was getting up my nose in a big way, combined with the tedious nature of the narrator - who could best be described as a sociopath residing somewhere on the spectrum - made me want to put the book down. But I persisted.
The author cites Tolstoy’s opening paragraph of Anna Karenina on the nature of families and happiness, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” to underline the story of dysfunction between brothers, their wives and more importantly their children. The narrator is filled with jealously. He is a failed teacher, he is vastly overshadowed by his older brother, a Prime Ministerial aspirant. When combined with his violent and irrational behaviour it provides for a volatile mix.
The narrator is sniping and critical of each and every action and reaction of this elder brother and that too becomes wearing as we progress through the courses.
The constant pickiness of the narrator, critical of everything and everyone, the waiter who points out the specials on the menu using his pinky finger, his brother, the food, the restaurant, the staff etc., etc., begins to wear the reader down after a while.
But then the real story starts to emerge. First that the narrator is, to use the vernacular “not the full bottle”, and second that the families have a secret, a terrible secret which threatens the futures of all members of the family. The dysfunction of the family is seen through the eyes of the narrator who has - how shall we put it - forgotten to take his meds.
It’s a brutal tale told by someone who would probably buy the t-shirt I saw advertised the carrying the motif “Walk away, this service engineer has anger issues and a serious dislike of stupid people”. The certain belief that they, and only they have the hot line to the truth and that everyone else is an idiot often helps to shade their own failings.
The book provides a few twists and turns and by the end I was somewhat enjoying what the author had done here. I can see how this novel could be adapted for screenplay, and can imagine it will probably become a successful movie. It provides us with our worst fears and shows us how one family dealt with them.
So I would probably give it four and a half out of ten.
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