Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, are going out to dinner tonight with Paul’s brother, Serge, and his sister-in-law, Babette. Paul is not looking forward to this dinner. He seems to be a bit of a homebody, dedicated to his wife and fifteen-year-old son, Michel, maybe even a bit of a misanthrope. He certainly doesn’t want to go to the fancy type of place his brother always chooses, with their fussiness and small portions, as opposed to his favorite cafe around the corner from his house. Plus, his brother wants to discuss something, and Paul doesn’t care to talk with his brother about whatever it is.
The Dinner, a 2009 novel by Herman Koch and translated into English (apparently it was a big seller internationally), starts off with this quiet premise, and the book takes place throughout the dinner, though with quite a few flashbacks. As the evening passes and each course succeeds the last (you know how those fancy restaurants are–lots of courses but still somehow not enough to fill you up) the thing Paul doesn’t care to talk about gradually asserts itself, and with it a growing sense in the reader of dread at the proceedings. Actually, dread may not be strong enough a word–I don’t want to give too much away, but horror may be more fitting by the novel’s end.
This is a family with secrets, and Paul is a lot more complicit in them than one would think from the grumpy but basically simple family man image we originally have of him. Koch walks a fine line with the tone here. In the end, I think what he’s going for, and what he achieves for a receptive reader, is black humor.
But it really does take a receptive reader. I think most literature-lovers would start this novel enjoying its precise observations and crisp style. I think a lot fewer are going to follow all the way through the increasingly off-putting plot developments and character revelations. For those with the stomach for it, this is an expertly constructed and executed novel about one family with a lot to hide, and how violence and moral indifference winds through the generations.