Tuesday, November 22, 2022

the last book I read

The Dinner
by Herman Koch.

Well, you know what they say - you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives. So when Paul Lohman gets a call from his brother Serge inviting him to dinner at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant he is not immediately filled with joy. But, nonetheless, turning Serge down isn't really an option for a number of reasons - firstly, Serge is a man of some power and influence, a successful politician and a possible candidate for Prime Minister at the next election, and so generally what Serge wants Serge gets. 

But there is another reason as well, and that has to do with their respective children: Paul and his wife Claire's son Michel, and Serge and his wife Babette's two sons, Rick and Beau. Something has happened, and the families need to discuss it in order to decide what to do about it. But broaching this sort of subject is a bit awkward, as Paul isn't sure how much (if anything) Claire knows already, and it's generally the sort of distasteful subject you want to knock back a couple of bottles of wine before discussing.

Eventually (via a series of flashbacks) the point of this particular meeting in this particular restaurant emerges: Rick and Michel have committed a crime. Not just any old crime, though: murder, or manslaughter at the very least. On a night out a few weeks previously they went to withdraw some cash from an ATM and found access blocked by a homeless woman in a sleeping bag. During the course of some light recreational putting the boot in things got out of hand, some of the debris in the ATM enclosure proved unexpectedly flammable and, well, one thing led to another and she died. I mean, we've all done it, right? Learn a lesson, don't set fire to any more homeless people and we'll say no more about it. Trouble is, it's not quite that simple any more. Some grainy footage of the incident has been uploaded to YouTube and been picked up by the news networks. No-one's obviously identifiable, but the parents know who is who. But who uploaded the video? Not Michel or Rick, it seems. But it seems that Beau, Serge and Babette's adopted son from Burkina Faso, may have played a part and moreover may be blackmailing the other two boys.

We now get some back-story, partly to establish the kids' characters a bit, but mainly to focus on Paul. Formerly a history teacher, his teaching career came to an abrupt end after what he makes sound like a minor series of infringements - an unnecessarily aggressive review of a female student's work, some mildly contrarian in-lesson discussions about the holocaust - but which we soon realise are filtered through a pretty dense Unreliable Narrator filter. It's not just that, though - later on while Paul is being a house-husband his wife Claire gets ill and spends quite a bit of time in hospital, and it's clear (though Paul doesn't describe it this way) that he (left in sole charge of Michel) doesn't cope very well, and when Serge and Babette come round to suggest that they look after Michel for a while he belts Serge in the kisser with a hot saucepan.

Later on, when one of Michel's school essays is deemed to contain some unacceptable thoughts on the subject of capital punishment, Paul is summoned to the school for a discussion with the headmaster, a discussion which culminates in Paul beating the headmaster up. 

So we are invited to be mildly suspicious about Paul's motivations, and about how many of his slightly worrying personality traits he might have passed on to Michel (generally regarded by both sets of parents as the ringleader in any cousinly activity). Serge, on the other hand, seems to want some sort of public confession and proposes holding a public press conference to simultaneously reveal his own son and nephew as the perpetrators and announce the end to his own candidacy for Prime Minister. Paul and Claire quickly agree that this cannot be allowed to happen and hatch a scheme to stop him.

The book this reminded me of most strongly was We Need To Talk About Kevin with its basic theme of Middle-Class People Fucking Up Their Kids And Generally Being Awful. I haven't read it but The Slap seems to cover similar territory. As a reader your main feeling is that you're being goaded into taking up positions of general intolerant awfulness: yeah, OK, homeless people should make an effort not to be so malodorous or it's no wonder people set fire to them; yes, of course the general bleeding-heart sensitivity of modern students makes you want to punch them square in the face; yes, those who adopt children from African countries only do it for some sort of Madonna-esque virtue-signalling; yes, of course the kids adopted via this route will betray you, their saintly white benefactors, at the drop of a hat. The other thing I was put in mind of was the work of Michel Houellebecq, though to be fair The Dinner is less overtly racist and bonkers. 

So it's enjoyable reading, though bracingly cynical and with no attempt to make you warm to any of the characters. I haven't checked exhaustively but I think it may also be the first novel on this list originally written in Dutch - certainly this list from 2015 reckons that there hadn't been any yet.

[POSTSCRIPT] I meant to add for completeness that The Dinner has been filmed three times, once in Dutch, once in Italian and once in English. I suppose it's obvious material for filming - spicy subject matter, but most of the action happening to four characters sitting round a restaurant table, so presumably fairly cheap to film. Anyway, the English version starred Richard Gere and Steve Coogan as the brothers and Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall and ChloĆ« Sevigny in supporting roles - three women, incidentally, because the film-makers chose to give Serge (Gere) a wife and an ex-wife for some reason.

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