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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” surfaces in the musings of Paul Lohman, narrator of Herman Koch’s “The Dinner,” it evokes a sense of inevitability—some threshold has been crossed, but there is no obvious explanation offered as to what has occurred. Allusions to the source of some persistent disquiet tease and tempt; glimpses of missing puzzle pieces are proffered only to disappear and resurface many pages later. It’s an addictive spectacle; bit by excruciating bit, Koch exposes the astounding manner in which the Lohman family is courting unhappiness.
Despite borrowing a driving sentiment from Tolstoy, “The Dinner” is more than capable of standing up for itself. Out of Koch’s six novels, originally written in Dutch, it is the only one that has been published in English thus far. Translator Sam Garrett has done an excellent job: the novel’s layers of plot combine with the distinct voice of the narrator to such an effect that it’s hard to believe much, if anything, was lost in translation. Things start out innocently enough. Two brothers—one poised to become prime minister and the other a former history teacher—and their wives meet for dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant, but family drama slides into a psychological thriller almost without notice. They have come together to discuss their sons, whose horrifying actions go far beyond the expected teenage vexations, necessitating life-changing decisions for both families.
History teacher Paul’s first person narration initially seems stilted, almost painfully so. The narrator’s thoughts seem too censored, characterizing him as abnormally detached even when discussing sensitive social issues like class and immigration. However, his level voice thrives in the escalating situation, and soon Paul becomes the most sympathetic character; after all, it’s difficult to think of something more stifling than the elaborate production that is a formal dinner undertaken out of obligation to your famous sibling. Here is Paul Lohman: thoughtful, blunt, intelligent but not excessively so, an ordinary man who is still very much in love with his wife of 20 years and who clearly cares deeply for his only child. He is relentlessly willing to skewer everything—not only the absurd mannerisms of the maitre d’, who pontificates the pedigree of every component of a tiny dish of olives, but also the extroverted, yet ultimately uninteresting personality of his politician brother Serge—employing wit a shade more corrosive than merely dark. Yet this acidity, coupled with a resolute reasonableness and juxtaposed with Serge’s concocted mannerisms, makes Paul an alluring and trustworthy narrator; acclimation to the halting, digressive style comes soon enough and eventually sinks into a believable denial that anything felt strange in the first place.
The events of the novel parallel the progress of the meal, with each new course interrupting digressions into memory and reasserting present tensions, producing a piecemeal reconstruction of the boys’ actions and assorted events that might contextualize or justify them. With each interruption, the presentation of food becomes more absurd. Hearing about how “the blackberries are from our own garden [and] the parfait is made from homemade chocolate, and these are shaved almonds mixed with grated walnuts,” builds near unbearable suspense and an appreciation for Paul’s desire to snap, “I know, because that’s what I ordered”; it seems high time to proceed to devour the real meat of the story—Paul’s flashbacks. Yet these recollections can be frustratingly vague, especially when contrasted with the excruciating detail in which Paul describes everything from the restaurant men’s room to his brother’s interest in wine and his son’s attire. “I won’t say which restaurant because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there,” Paul claims on the very first page, and this reticence continues throughout; myriad crucial points, such as the nature of his wife’s illness, are considered either too private or too unimportant to merit reporting.
While the excessive description of events in the present and an infuriating tendency to gloss over the specifics of major plot points would be obvious flaws when taken separately, together they form a believable reconstruction of events as presented by a narrator directly involved in the action of the book. Paul is compelling, even as it gradually becomes apparent that he is neither as reliable nor as normal as he first appears. The vagueness makes the story seem less distant; the lingering questions give it a way under the skin, where it stays, refusing to budge.
Paul’s perspective and opinions can be unsettling, particularly as the many events of “The Dinner,” whether explicitly or indirectly, center on sensitive social or moral issues: capital punishment, class, racism, immigration, homelessness, prenatal genetic diagnosis. Koch’s approach to these issues is really just pouring salt in a wound: it doesn’t solve the problem—indeed, the “answers” offered by the characters raise more questions than they put to rest—but it certainly creates a rich forum in which Koch’s cynical narrator can thrive.
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