“The Dinner” by Herman Koch

“The Dinner” by Herman Koch  (2013) – 304 pages    Translated by Sam Garrett

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Nothing is more annoying or irritating for a guy than to have a brother who is more successful than you are.  I can vouch for that.  That’s what we have in “The Dinner” by Herman Koch.  Paul Lohman is a failed school teacher while his brother Serge Lohman is a famous Dutch politician.  Serge is so famous that strangers in restaurants come up to him and ask to have their or their kids’ picture taken with him.  Paul, the lesser brother, tells the story here, and his vexation with Serge fairly oozes out of him.

Much of “The Dinner” takes place in a fancy restaurant where Paul and Serge and their wives are having dinner.   Thus we have section headings of “Apperitif”, “Appetizer”, “Main Course”, etc.  Although later the story ranges far from the dinner table, in the early chapters the dinner is an excellent framing device for the story Herman Koch tells.

Just under the surface of this exquisite dinner occasion, there is an act of outrageous nastiness involving these two couples’ children.  Of course it is a good thing to love our children, but is it possible to love our children too much, to the point where we are ready, willing, and able to hurt other people in our children’s defense?  That is one of the questions “The Dinner” asks.  Give Dutch author Herman Koch points for juxtaposing this dinner at an exclusive restaurant with such a miserable act of human cruelty.

I liked “The Dinner” quite a lot, but didn’t like myself much for liking this novel.  The story seemed to give free reign to our lowest basest prejudices.  The novel is like an ugly modern artwork mounted in an expensive hardwood frame, something we have all seen.   We really get inside Paul Lohman’s head in “The Dinner”, and it is not a pretty sight.  His successful brother Serge is a liberal politician for whom Paul has the utmost disdain.  Meanwhile Paul has this nasty racist and misogynist streak although he does love his wife Claire.  I suppose Paul should get some points for expressing his feelings honestly.  And no matter how obnoxious his attitudes are, they are expressive and do have a lot of energy and move things along.

In “The Dinner”,  Herman Koch has etched a plot which will probably stay in my mind forever unfortunately.  Apparently Koch has written six previous novels, and with the success of “The Dinner” all the books will probably get translated within the next few years.

“The Dinner” tells a vivid story which will provoke a strong reaction in you.   How many novels manage to do that?

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t read this yet, but I love your review!

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks. “The Dinner” is both fun and obnoxious; the readers can take their pick.

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  3. Great review! I found it hard to review this one without spoilers. It definitely is one that will stick in my memory. (I listened to the audiobook version, which was excellent!)

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    • Hi Laurie C.
      I also listened to the audiobook version, and like you say it was excellent. The audio book reader sounded just like I’d expect Paul Lohman to sound. I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not for him, but he certainly was able to fill the role.

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  4. I found the book very rewarding as well. Like you, I initially was intrigued at the way that Koch played off both the phoney restaurant and equally phoney brother in a very humorous way. And then he quite subtly twists everything to produce the most self-serving, selfish cast of characters that I can remember — I didn’t find that obnoxious, but I don’t think I’d want to have dinner with any of them.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      Was Serge Lohman a phony or a sincere politician trying to do good? We hear Paul’s side of things, but he’s certainly an unreliable judge. And, yes, this is “the most self-serving, selfish cast of characters that I can remember.”. The main person in the novel I found truly obnoxious is Paul Lohman himself. At the start of the novel Paul seems like a decent fellow, but gradually he goes off the rails. .

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  5. What an intriguing review you have written! I had to laugh aloud at your statement that you didn’t like yourself for liking this novel. I’m not sure I can resist this book.

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  6. Posted by acommonreaderuk on May 2, 2013 at 6:46 PM

    Well, I liked it very much, and didn’t share your distaste for it. I though it was very enjoyable (as you did) but was quite happy to observe these nasty people without feeling too sullied myself. Great review

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