“The Dinner” Serves Up a Five-Course Psychological Thriller
“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This first line from Tolstoy’s famous “Anna Karenina” is a theme and mantra of the narrator of “The Dinner” by Herman Koch. The question the novel raises is to what length parents will go to cover unhappy particulars of their children to maintain a precarious sense of cohesive happiness.
The whole of the story takes place over a five-course dinner in an overly-pretentious up-scale restaurant in Amsterdam – the kind of place that takes months to get a reservation and where plates have more white space than food on them. As Koch writes, “The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was the vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.” The misanthropic narrator, Paul, and his wife, Claire, are meeting Paul’s older brother, Serge (in the lead to become the next prime minister – and hence able to get a table at the restaurant on the same day) and his wife, Babette. Paul paints a picture of Serge as a pompous, publicity-seeking boor who affectedly loves everything French and goes to such lengths as to adopt an African boy to win votes.
They are meeting to discuss their teenage boys who have committed an odious crime which was caught on tape and uploaded to YouTube. The crime has been widely publicized and met with outrage but has not yet been tied to the perpetrators. With everything at stake (political career, future of the boys) and a good chance of getting away with it, what should they do?
It remains a puzzle to me that I am drawn to a book whose characters are all unlikable. It must be Koch’s mastery in creating suspense and drama by skillfully revealing secrets as the dinner progresses – the book is hard to put down. What is chilling is that the story is not far-fetched but probable – the crime was based on actual events. Being a parent, it is disturbing to grapple with what I would do if faced with the same situation.
The novel, originally in Dutch, has been translated into 12 languages, adopted as a Dutch play and film and soon to be made into an American film directed by Cate Blanchett. It explores the themes of xenophobia, class pretension, nature vs. nurture, roots of evil, sibling rivalry, parenting, family secrets, and mental illness.