The Dinner-By Herman Koch

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At the library the other day to fulfill the car’s empty CD player, seems I’ve listened to all the Harlan Cobin, Michael Connelly, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Lawrence Shames, Laurence Block and Gillian Flynn left on the library shelves, so my eyes scan audio titles until they land on something listenable. The Dinner. Well, why not? says the Food Bitch in me.

Translated from Dutch into English, and about a hoity-toity dinner in Amsterdam and . . . that’s all I need, I like reading about food and dining.

It starts out wonderfully. The reader sounds like John Cleese and I find myself laughing so hard I can barely steer the car. What strikes me as funny are main character Paul’s sarcastic remarks about the high-end restaurant, his contempt for his dining companions (brother Serge and his wife Babette), and the pin-striped-suit-wearing manager with his pinky hovering above their drinks and appetizers. Reader Clive Mantle portrays the manager with a fine, pretentious droll.  The finite details are intriguing, down to the manager’s buffed fingernails. And when we get into the men’s room, details again are a-plenty and I really feel as though I’m standing there at the pissing wall and —well.

But there’s an underlying something in Paul’s narrative, I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t think it’s supposed to be a funny book. So why am I laughing? I mean, there’s that thing with the two sons that should be coming up soon, the “single horrific act” mentioned on the back of the audio book.

Paul and his wife meet Paul’s brother and sister-in-law at a bourgeois restaurant, reserved for them by his politically famous brother, Serge, an up and coming political star of grand proportions. Seems Paul doesn’t like his brother:

“I bet my brother . . . stuffs himself into a woman in the same way he stuffs a beef croquette into his mouth.”

Well Paul doesn’t like much really; we know he can’t stand the pin-striped manager and his pinky. I made the mistake of perusing some reviews for this book (something I don’t usually do until after I’ve read a book) and many reviews blast Paul as an unlikable guy, an anti-hero, and they ask, how can a book be successful when the main character is unlikable?

Not like Paul! I love Paul! I love Paul in that way I love Chef Robert Irvine when he gets to yell and insult people. (And  get paid for it.) Paul’s negative musings satisfy that place in your head where all your sarcastic remarks toil in seclusion, when your brain tells you not to let them out. Paul brings me back to early Saturday Night Live, when newscaster Dan Aykroyd would say to Jane Curtain, “Jane, you ignorant slut!” We all went around and said that because it’s just so satisfying! Paul thinks things like this about his brother, the food, the restaurant and people and I agree with what Paul thinks: Yeah! Serge—what a pompous ass! Yeah and why is there so much void on the plate! How much are they charging for such pretentious food! And who gives a shit that the beef on your plate led a happy and organic life before it was killed?

By the main course however, through Paul’s narrative, his life has come more into focus. And you certainly disagree with his parenting skills (or lack of). You wonder about Paul’s wife, Claire, the perfect wife. Between and during courses and musings and rantings, Paul brings the reader into his life and you see that there is something really wrong with Paul. You think that if you were having a drink with this guy,  you’d stop laughing and look into his eyes and see a kind of coldness that would make you get up and leave, wondering why you ever trusted him.

Paul’s obscure and violent thoughts sometimes manifest verbally, which had lost him his teaching job years ago. The school shrink had told him his unnamed psychological ailment could be hereditary. Maybe his son has it too? Oh yeah, the son. What are he and his cousins up to?

There are hints of social ills, those in their European Society obviously mirroring ours: racism, poverty, terrorism, all woven through Paul’s flashes of his life, an ugly and indestructible thread through Paul’s demented take on the world and people. At dessert, Serge brings up the sons. What to do?

Serge you realize, after your laughing hangover is over, is the sensible one.

But Paul and Claire are joined by family, and by Paul’s illness, and probably by the illness of their son, to make sure their happy family is not threatened by the forces of the outside world, or what you may consider the forces of what’s right versus what’s wrong. And now it’s a creepy book, all its ugliness unsuccessfully hiding behind the routine of a dinner service at a pretentious restaurant.

The Dinner is an unpredictable story, wallowing in the moral quagmires of contemporary life and I appreciated it. I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed the print version as much as hearing a John Cleese sound-alike speaking at me, and breaking up the intensity of the story by causing me to wonder if ur-I-nal is really how Europeans pronounce UR-i-nal.

And next time I’m out at a restaurant and I look at the other tables of diners, I’ll wonder if their meal is a front for something else more sinister.

For the actual, non-Food Bitch reviews:

NY Times review

NPR Review

 

 

 

 

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