THE Dinner, a Dutch novel now translated by Sam Garrett, is already an international bestseller, with over a million copies sold in Europe.
Some describe it as a satire, others as a crime novel, and others as one that explores urgent social and moral problems. In truth it is all these things, and though this may have contributed to its success – for different readers find different things to admire or enjoy – it doesn’t quite hang together to make a satisfying whole.
Atlantic Books have put an eye-catching question on the cover: “How far would you go to protect the ones you love?” This is both a nice piece of marketing and a fair statement of the central theme of the novel, even though one may feel at the end that the question itself is inadequately explored.
There has been a horrible crime. Two teenage boys seeking late at night to withdraw cash from an ATM find access to the machine obstructed by an evil-smelling drunk woman sleeping rough. They pull her about and when she resists set her on fire. The images, caught on CCTV, are shown on the national news. Both sets of parents recognise the boys who are cousins, Michel and Rick, but – slightly improbably? – nobody else does. Time passes and then the parents meet to discuss what should be done. This is the dinner of the title. Even more improbably, they choose a smart and pretentious restaurant for their meeting.
The narrator is Paul, Michel’s father. At first he presents himself sympathetically, as an ordinary guy. His brother, Serge, is a celebrity politician – inasmuch as politicians are ever celebrities in the sensible Netherlands; indeed he is in line to be the country’s next prime minister. It is Serge who picked the restaurant, which is the kind of place where people who are not celebrities have to book weeks in advance. So Serge’s decision that they meet there is a self-assertive act. It is soon evident that Paul resents and despises, or tries to despise, his successful brother. He is quite funny about him and even funnier in his scornful response to the pretentious food and the intolerable head waiter.
It is soon evident however that Paul is a very unreliable narrator, whose judgements and opinions should be treated with reservation. He gradually reveals more about himself, and what he reveals, without any self-awareness, let alone self-criticism, is almost as disturbing as the boys’ crime.
He is an ex-teacher, driven into early retirement because of his instability and unsuitable ideas. He is given to violence, and is quite proud of his record of assaults. This is intended doubtless to raise the question whether the boys’ violence is the result of nature or nurture. This is an interesting and valid question, but, Koch’s choice of narrator means that it may be asked by the reader, but can’t be explored in the novel itself.
That is one weakness. The second one appears to be more serious: that there is never any real discussion of the ethical question raised by the parents’ knowledge of the boys’ crime. This is presumably intentional, evidence of the moral immaturity of the four of them. Strangely indeed it is only the despised politician who seems to realise that there is a question to be argued out. But the reader is likely to feel cheated. It is understandable that parents want to protect their children, but surely the question should be faced. There is one truly shocking moment, with the argument for doing nothing made by Michel’s mother. Perhaps this is the point; that the parents are so cocooned by prosperity that they have become incapable of recognising that there is indeed an ethical question to be faced; that the parents are no better than their sons.
Rick is said by his mother to be disturbed – but perhaps by the publicity rather than by the enormity of what he is done. Michel seems unaffected except by the discovery that Rick’s adopted brother, an African, hopes to profit from his knowledge of the crime, a discovery that will have its own appalling but never examined criminal consequences.
In feeling that the author has evaded the question at the centre of his novel, it may well be that I have been reading it wrongly, and that Koch has indeed performed a conjuring trick: now you see the problem, now you don’t, for it has been whisked out of sight. There is no rabbit to be pulled out of the hat. The hat is empty – like comfortable and complacent Dutch bourgeois society?
The true horror then is not the boys’ crime – and indeed the boys scarcely exist as characters; it is the adults’ indifference, an indifference modified only by Serge’s fear for the effect of what has happened on his political career. If this reading is right, then the chief criminal is the narrator and his accomplice is his apparently sensible, ever-loving wife.
• Herman Koch is at the Edinburgh book festival on 24 August
By Herman Koch
Atlantic Books, 309pp, £12.99
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