The Dinner, by Herman Koch
After reading this book, I’ll never be hazy on the concept of the unreliable narrator again. I’ve never noticed how readily I believe a first person narrative… and how far off from reality it can turn out to be.
This is one of those stories where most of the action takes place at dinner, with just four people, although significant events elsewhere are referred to, described in conflicting accounts, and argued about. The four-character, single-scene set-up is very reminiscent of a stage play. According to his bio, the author, Herman Koch, is also an actor; maybe that accounts for the theatricality of the book. The fact that these characters are two sets of parents (two brothers and their wives) with a conflict involving their sons reminded me of the play and movie by Yasmina Reza, Carnage. The subject matter here, though, is much, much darker. The couple’s sons have committed an act of random cruelty; for the moment, they seem to have gotten away with it. The parents, to put it mildly, have wildly differing views of how to deal with the situation, and with each other. To complicate the situation, one of the brothers is a successful politician, so if his son’s guilt is discovered it may well ruin his chances for election.
The plot plays out in a ridiculously popular and pretentious restaurant, the type of place where only the politician brother, Serge can get reservations. The overly precious, miniscule portions of food are pointed out, ingredient by ingredient, by the headwaiter. With his pinky. The serving of the food provides some comic relief for the rest of the subject matter, which is pitch black.
“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.
To watch this plot unfold is to be riveted and creeped out at the same time. There is a Dutch movie version, and Wikipedia reports that an English adaptation, directed by Cate Blanchett, has also been announced.
author photo: Mark Kohn