The reviews of The Dinner by Herman Koch are resoundingly positive.
Both the structure and the way the reader’s perspective on the characters are manipulated are clever. The book is structured around dinner courses, with back-story filling out the characters and the events leading up to the dinner. Told from one of the diner’s perspective, we are slowly given details that causes us to reassess our opinion of all, including the narrator.
However, the cleverness is not enough for me to be fulsome in my praise. In fact, I didn’t enjoy this book.
I hate suspense as an artificial tool to keep you on tenterhooks (except with Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot). I also hate the fact that evil wins. And it is not as if I expect happily ever after endings. But this ending is so disheartening. It leaves one deflated and feeling hopeless for our society and the goodness of humanity.
There is no moral dilemma. The boys engaged in random acts of violence, one of whom learnt from his father that violence was a way to solve problems. Yet the boys were not reacting to situations, nor acting in moments of heightened emotions. They were coldly, deliberately hurting others who were weaker and more vulnerable than themselves. And filming it.
I also find it a cop out that the narrator, Paul, has an unspecified, genetic disorder that causes him to react with violence. One that can be detected in the womb? Come on! Does this even exist? This is another cop out. It gives the reader an opportunity to see the perpetrators are not of us; the narrator becomes an other, some one of us.
Yet it is this propensity to violence that his wife, Claire loves. Claire appears to be the voice of liberal reason. By the end she is cold and calculating and, not only tolerating of, but prefers violence.
At first I warmed to none of the characters, swayed as I was by the narrator’s descriptions of his brother, Serge, a politician. It is difficult to get into a book when I care for none of the characters. I don’t know if other readers initially liked Paul or Claire? By the end I had some sympathy for Serge but that was overwhelmed by the horror of what the boys did.
So if you enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin or any of Jodi Picoult’s books, you will enjoy this. And, as it is a quick read, thanks to the translation by Sam Garrett, you can turn it over in less than a day. (I did like the style and language, so that’s a positive.)
If you wish to avoid books with a nihilistic view of the world, don’t read.