Wow. It has been a long time since I have been this floored by a book. The Dinner by Herman Koch is haunting. It has been somewhat of an international sensation that has finally been translated into English from Dutch. Now it goes without saying that I am a book snob on many levels and there is one part of me that hates reading books in translation. I don’t know why. I argue that the beauty of the language is lost in translation, that translations lack nuance, but basically it comes down to the fact that I often find translations inaccessible. That is certainly not the case with The Dinner. The prose is crisp and clean – whether or not it was like that in the original Dutch I have no idea, but it does seem to work in the English. Furthermore, there is such subtlety conveyed in the translation that I went from quite liking one set of diners at the dinner in question, to being horrified by them.
It is difficult to talk about The Dinner without revealing too much, but I shall try. A recurring theme in the novel is Tolstoy’s old adage that “all happy families are the alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. This is particularly relevant since The Dinner is set for Paul and his wife, and Paul’s brother (an important politician) and his wife. They have met and come together to discuss an important matter that involves their children. And yes, it takes the whole novel to reveal what is covered at this dinner. The mantle of ‘unhappy family’ glides from the relationship of Paul and his brother, to his brother’s family, to Paul’s own family. The inter-relationships of the four main characters at the dinner are fascinating and sublimely revealing. It would be difficult to find another character based story so deftly told.
In the end The Dinner is a deeply troubling novel. The events that transpire and the characters’ reactions to them are, at times, horrifying. Yet this only makes the novel more compelling. In the early pages of the story I found myself quite liking Paul and his commentary on the social pretensions of his brother and the restaurant in which they are dining. But by the end of the novel Paul’s ideas seem so repulsive I could not believe that I had once sympathized with him.
Who would like this book? At the end of the day I don’t know if ‘like’ is even a word you would ascribe to The Dinner. It is powerful, haunting, creepy and provocative, but likable it is not. Although I never read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, I suspect that The Dinner raises many of the same kind of uncomfortable emotions. Right now I’m recommending this book to everyone. It is hard to put down. You may not like it in the end, but it will make you think.