Archived Reading Room

Koch novel a hearty serving of words, plot

bookBack in 1981, a provocative film called “My Dinner With Andre” created quite a stir by reducing drama to the bare essentials. For more than two hours (an earlier version was three hours in length), two intelligent, gifted, but very different men (Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn) talked to each other. There were no exotic treks to other locations, no thunderous music scores, no speeding cars. 

The entire film consisted of conversation. The two men ate, drank and exchanged tales about their lives. For whatever reason, “My Dinner With Andre” won numerous awards and caught the world’s attention. It also spawned an amazing number of parodies and clones. My favorite was poster of a grinning bear exclaiming “My Dinner Was Andre.”

Although there are similarities between Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Louis Malle’s film, they are arguably superficial. The cast consists of two brothers and their wives who are dining out at a prestigious (and pretentious) restaurant. The mood seems to be genial and friendly; however the reader is immediately aware that there is something sinister about this meal, which progresses from the “aperitif” to the desert, and like the menu, the conversation passes from “light and witty” to “provocative and nasty” to “vicious” and finally “terrifying.” The meal reflects the dramatic action and the “main course” contains surprises and revelations. Tuck in your napkins and let’s begin.

The Dinner begins with two couples meeting at an unidentified restaurant (“unidentified” because the narrator tells us that if he reveals the name, the public will flock to the location in the hope of seeing his “celebrity” brother.”) The narrator, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, arrive first. We quickly become aware that there is a bit of friction between Paul and his famous brother, Serge, who tends to make decisions without consulting either his wife, Babette, or Paul. Serge has selected this posh restaurant instead of another less pretentious place which is nearby.  

By the time Serge and Babette arrive and the waiter has served the aperitif, it would appear that this is a customary outing and the four diners will spend the evening discussing their children and Serge’s political ambitions. Ah, but something is wrong. The observant Paul notes that Babette’s red eyes indicate that she has been crying. Has his famous brother and his wife had a disagreement? Is Paul just an irritating snoop, or are we experiencing a prelude to what will become ... not merely a thriller ... but a terrifying revelation about human nature?

As the meal progresses and Paul continues to provide details about their lives, we learn that each couple has 15-year-old son. However Serge and Babette have also adopted an African boy named Beau. Paul’s cynical comments suggest that he suspects that his brother is striving to acquire a political/ cosmopolitan image by acquiring an African son. Also, there is a growing suspicion that there are “problems” with Beau.

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It is not surprising to learn that the “natural” sons are also in trouble. Michel, Paul and Claire’s son, is withdrawn and secretive. In addition, he has recently written a theme for his history class concerning the problems of an over-populated world that has caused some alarm. Essentially, Michel concludes that there are too many people and we need some kind of effective means of getting rid of the access. We learn that Paul has been called to the school to discuss Michel’s theme and the consequences were unfortunate. The school principal has been hospitalized.

At some point, the readers of The Dinner begin to suspect that Paul, the narrator, is not what he appears to be. Gradually, surprising details of his character emerge. Paul has a violent temper, a condition that he controls with medication. It seems that Michel also has a violent temper and a “propinquity for violence and rage.” Eventually, Paul makes a candid confession. The basic ideas in his son’s theme came from Paul.  

During the main course, we learn that Paul is a teacher ... or to be more accurate, he is a teacher “on leave.” Paul is suffering from “burnout” a distinction that he rejects. Paul admits that his lectures had became so disturbing and provocative, the school system had been forced to put him “on leave.” He is also advised to seek “psychological help.” Paul accepts this advice and the family is fully aware of his condition. They are also aware that he frequently stops taking his medication. In other words, Paul is a “loaded pistol,” and any unexpected provocation might set him off.

The author of The Dinner has one significant advantage over the creators of “My Dinner With Andre,” and that is the use of the modern ubiquitous cell phone/smartphone. All of the characters have one. In fact, some of the most stunning revelations in this thriller are cell-phone messages. It is a cell phone message left on his son’s phone that leads Paul to the discovery that his son (and Rick, Serge and Babette’s son) have been involved in “a shocking crime” that is currently explored by the media: the murder of a homeless woman who had been “set on fire” in an ATM cubicle. It is a cell phone message that alerts him to the fact that Serge and Babette’s adopted son, Beau, is black-mailing Michel and Rick. As The Dinner approaches the “dessert and coffee” stage, Paul begins to weave together all of the disparate parts of this tale with messages left on answering machines and cell phones. We learn that there have been “other crimes” against the homeless.

At the present time, The Dinner is a popular selection for book discussion groups. In fact, the novel concludes with “A Reader’s Guide” which address some of the issues. I find it worth noting that Paul makes frequent allusions to his favorite films which include “Deliverance” and “Straw dogs,” both of which address the question, “What would you do if someone threatened to destroy your most treasured possession? If the fate or lives of your children were in jeopardy, would you hesitate to break the law? Then, there is the “nature or nurture” issues of raising children.

The Dinner is a Dutch novel, but that has no significance in discussing the novel’s issues. Serge’s ambitions to become prime minister easily translates to an American desire to be a representative or county commissioner. Communication devices assist or undermine our need to share information both in Asheville or the Netherlands. It is heartening to discover that humanity’s primary values are the same everywhere, including Michel’s confession that he likes having a dangerous man for a father ... one who would hospitalize the high school principal, if necessary. 

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