Monday, April 21, 2014

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

I hastily downloaded The Dinner because I wanted to read it before I see the film version at The
Flicks. As it turns out, I needn't have rushed to finish it, because the cinema has been closed -- first for the three days of Khmer New Year, and afterward because a piece of their equipment needed maintenance. Regardless, I did read this book with uncharacteristic speed for the simple if hackneyed reason that I couldn't put it down.

When I first read in a review that the novel takes place at one dinner in a very trendy, exclusive Amsterdam restaurant, each course constituting a chapter, I remembered the three times I've seen the beginning of "My Dinner with Andre" -- a dialogue spanning one meal. I've never seen the end of the film, because all three times I fell asleep before the main course arrived. (I don't understand this, really, since I love art films and manage to stay awake through the most monotonous documentaries -- Is "My Dinner with Andre" really that soporific?)

As I read The Dinner, though, any likeness to "My Dinner with Andre" quickly gave way to comparisons to We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Two couples are meeting at the dinner table: The men are brothers, Paul and Serge Lohman. Serge is a well-known politician with his eye on the Prime Minister's office. Paul is the novel's narrator. Paul's wife is Claire, and Serge's wife is Babette. They are meeting to discuss some trouble that their sons have got into, and what, if anything, they should do about it.

Koch reveals fairly early in the book what the boys have done, so that's not a factor in the suspense. Just as Lionel Shriver discloses early in her novel that Kevin, the narrator's son, has gone on a murderous rampage with a crossbow at his high school, Koch tells us that the teen-aged cousins, upon finding a smelly, homeless woman camped out in an ATM cubicle late one night, proceed to harrass, then to assault, and finally -- perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not -- to kill her. CCTV cameras captured the whole incident, and it's being broadcast to an outraged Dutch television audience, but whether the boys can be identified from the surveillance tape remains to be seen.

The person at the dinner table with the most to lose, of course, is Serge. His son's involvement, should it become public knowledge, will most certainly wreak  havoc with his political career. We're predisposed to dislike Serge, and it's almost immediately plain that Paul can't abide him, either. In one of his early flashbacks, Paul recounts the time that he took his wife and son to spend some time with Serge's family at their holiday home in France. The Dordogne, it seems, has become a popular destination for the Dutch.
Every year Serge and Babette went to their house in the Dordogne with the children. They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is "great": from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films. At the same time, they failed to see that the local French population of the Dordogne fairly retched at the sight of Dutch people.
Paul and Claire note the hostile graffiti on walls, and Serge quickly dismisses it as the work of some bored or disenfranchised teen-agers. It doesn't represent the overall atmosphere, he insists. Paul sees through his brother's self-serving, rose-coloured platitudes. I was impressed with Paul's clear vision of the real economic impact of the Dutch property grab.
But what if the slogan-scrawlers didn't stop at mere slogans? I asked myself. It probably wouldn't take much to scare off this band of cowards. The Dutch had a tendency to shit in their pants at the mere threat of real violence. You could start off by throwing rocks through windows, and if that didn't work you could burn down a couple of résidences secondaires. Not too many, because the real objective was to let those houses pass back into the hands of people who had first claim on them: the young French newly-weds who for years now had been forced by skyrocketing property prices to live with their parents. The Dutch had ruined the housing market for the local people; astronomical sums were being paid even for ruins. With the help of relatively inexpensive French masons, the ruin was then rebuilt, only to remain uninhabited for most of the year.
How can such a self-absorbed, emotionally unintelligent clod succeed as a politician, one wonders? It's as if someone flips a switch:  Serge changes.
Every time I've seen it, it has surprised me, it is surprising and amazing to behold: how my brother, the oaf, the lumpen boor who "has to eat now" and scarfs down his tournedos joylessly in three bites, the easily bored dullard whose eyes start to wander at every subject that doesn't have to do with him, how this brother of mine on a podium and in the spotlights and on TV literally begins to shine -- how, in other words, he becomes a politician with charisma.
Koch skillfully prepares the reader for whatever slick cover-up Serge might propose. But well before the main course arrives, he offers the first clues that Paul, who had previously sounded very rational, may not be the most reliable narrator. What is this? Is he edging toward blaming the victim...?
And then there was something else. This was the Netherlands. This was not the Bronx, we were not in the slums of Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro. In Holland you had a social safety net. No one had to lie around and get in the way in an ATM cubicle. 
Given the fraught relationship between the two brothers, one would expect each of them to blame the other's son as the instigator. Serge is too shrewd to say as much directly, and even his hints that his nephew Michel may have led the way in this violent attack elicit a somewhat surprising reaction from Paul.
Serge had always insinuated, and would doubtless repeat tonight: that Michel was a bad influence on Rick. I had always denied that; I had always thought it an easy way for my brother to duck his own responsibility for his son's actions. But since a few hours ago -- in fact, since much longer ago than that, of course -- I knew it was true. Michel was the leader of the two: Michel called the shots, Rick was the subservient goon. And, deep in my heart, that division of roles pleased me. Better that than the other way around, I thought.
Then Paul discloses that he has been on administrative leave from his teaching position for quite some time. He had told his high school history students that the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany had, for the most part, got what they deserved. At this point, as he relates the final discussion with the school principal, I lost all sense of having a grasp on the dynamics at the dinner table.
"Paul, what this is really about is something you said about victims. Please correct me if I'm wrong. About victims of the Second World War?" I leaned back, or at least I tried to lean back, but it was a hard, straight-backed chair that didn't give."It has been said that you have expressed yourself in rather belittling terms about those victims," the principal said. "You supposedly said that they had only themselves to blame for being victims."
"I never put it that way. I only said that not all victims are automatically innocent victims." ...
"But why don't you tell me yourself? What exactly did you say, Paul?"
"Nothing special. I let them do some simple arithmetic. In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the non-existent injustices they've had to suffer? Look around you, I said. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless, horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be -- and not only you, but virtually the entire family -- if that uncle or cousin would step on a landmine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those millions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past -- I never specifically mentioned the Second World War, I only used it as an example because it's the one that most appeals to their imaginations -- and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it's impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be. The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims..."
The advertisement for the film poses the question, "How far will you go to protect your family?" I would add to that, "...and why?"  The Dinner is a five-course portrayal of family dynamics gone amok, in a country, in a city, in a restaurant where these things just aren't supposed to happen.  Let's see if the film is as incendiary as the book.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an exciting story, and I hope the movie is just as gripping!


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