February 2013

James Orbesen


The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

In Dutch author Herman Koch's latest book The Dinner, translated by Sam Garrett, polite conversation in polite company in a polite restaurant is truly secret savagery. It is a savagery that lurks beneath even the most mundane of events where that very common surface doesn't smooth the unsavory over but simply masks and amplifies it. From the picking of a special vintage to the agony of what appetizer to choose, something dark hides behind the sudden knowing glances exchanged and the abrupt trips to the bathroom that dot this novel like blood trailed home from a crime scene.

The book is divided into several sections that chart the course of a dinner between two couples. Starting with a light aperitif of rose Champagne and olives, the company in question -- two brothers with their respective wives -- slowly unravels. Over the multicourse meal, Paul Lohman, the narrator, provides a blow-by-blow account of the meal in exacting detail. Relishing the small, polite blunders of his politician brother Serge and fantasizing about his sister-in-law Babette, Paul is an obsessive cataloguer of the foibles of those around -- or, more accurately, beneath -- him. From Paul's point of view, the meal is a failure before it has even begun. He'd rather dine on simple spareribs at the generic bar around the corner than enjoy an upscale meal with his bothersome brother. Yet the fraught dinner in question is only the latest in a long series of events that have haunted the otherwise polite and respectable Lohmans.

Polite conversation over dinner has a way of slipping into generalities. Is this accurate? After all, isn't it rude to be too specific? Too graphic? Too detailed? Too boorish? Too anything, really? Don't point and certainly don't call anybody names. The cool generalities of a polite meal have a way of insulating the present company from anything unsavory. No one wants to ruin anyone's appetite, don't cha know? Such generalness is apparent in Koch's novel. Paul's narration begins as such: "We were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there." Such a statement seems inauspicious. It provokes the question, why? What is there to hide? Why would one fear being seen?

It is not simply a one-time omission. Paul appears incapable of being specific. Another example from the narrator's past. This time Paul, a history teacher on indefinite leave, is reprimanded by the school's principal:

"Does the name -- mean anything to you, Paul?" he asked.

He named one of the female students in my class. I'm not omitting the name here on purpose. I vowed at the time to forget it. And I succeeded.

Or, as the dinner comes to a close: "I'm not going to say exactly what time it was. Exact times can turn on you later."

What do all these omissions, exclusions, and generalities amount to? What is Paul hiding? Again, the language of the dinner table purposefully obfuscates the issue at hand. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism employed in polite company. A problem is not talked about but, rather, around. So what is the occasion for this dinner? As the courses progress, it turns out the Lohman children, from both sides of the family, are in deep trouble. They have been caught on surveillance camera, grainy footage, of course, attacking a sleeping homeless woman in an ATM cubicle. Even worse, after Michel (Paul's son) and Rick (Serge's) throw trash at the defenseless woman, Michel tosses a container of gasoline her way and incinerates her. The dinner is not so much a meal as a strategy session on what's to be done.

The horrific crime has shocked the Netherlands. However, due to the grainy footage, it is hard for police to specifically single out the culprits. Serge, a candidate for prime minister, wants to confess and believes it is only a matter of time before the boys are found out. Paul, Babette, and Claire (Paul's wife) want to keep it covered up to varying degrees. Dinner has become an armed camp as each parent sharpens his or her knife in anticipation of a struggle.

What could have led the boys, Michel specifically, to commit such an atrocity? Again, Koch seems to point toward the language of generalness, of polite society, as the mask for savagery. To be general, while polite, seems to tiptoe to dehumanizing what is being talked about. It reduces something from a particular to an abstraction, a category. It's not a particular student, a Kaitlin or Greta, but just a female student that causes Paul to lose his job. The abstraction into the "female student" makes it all the better for him to despise her, after all. From that bit of distancing, what generalization is more maligned than "the homeless"?

Koch seems to insist that moving from the particular to the general is dangerous. A clear example comes from one of Paul's favored literary flourishes, compliments of Tolstoy. "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Paul intones this famous quip more than once. The payoff comes in the form of his willingness to protect his monstrous son out of a desire to maintain his happy family. This is how Paul makes choices. To turn in Michel would mean to not be happy, to not be general, faceless, and to become unhappy and particular and human.

The text reinforces this by first showing Michel's defense to his father after Paul had recognized his son on the surveillance footage that aired on a Dutch news program. "'It was a joke,' he'd said. 'And it was...' He grimaced in disgust. 'You should have smelled how that stank,' he said." Michel's excuse for burning a homeless woman to death is simply the abstract smell of her. Horrifying. Yet, what is even more horrific is Paul's reaction to this confession. It is also a telling detail that explains the Lohman's current predicament.

I put myself in his shoes. I formed an idea of how I myself would have reacted to the living creature in the sleeping bag, lying in my way there. To the stench. To the simple fact that someone, a person (I am purposely avoiding words here like homeless person or vagrant), how a person thinks that ATM cubicles are a place to sleep. A person who then reacts indignantly when two boys try to convince her otherwise. A person who becomes tetchy when disturbed in her sleep. A spoiled reaction, in other words, the kind of reaction you see more often from people who think they have a right to something.

Good parenting. It is no surprise Paul later reveals that he is familiar with casual violence. He once threatened to beat a shopkeeper with a tire pump after Michel kicked a ball through the shop window. On another occasion, Paul savagely assaulted Michel's liberal principal after the younger Lohman handed in a controversial essay promoting the reinstatement of capital punishment and endorsing the extrajudicial killing of criminals. Paul's former boss, the principal quoted previously, narrowly escaped harm after Paul barely restrained himself from snapping the man's neck. The only thing that stopped Paul was the consideration of Michel and the general happiness of his family.

One wouldn't be wrong in labeling Paul and his son as pseudo-fascists. The reliance on violence and the projection of an abstract Other are but a few aspect pointing toward the dark underside of human indifference. The guilt moves away from Paul and Michel and implicates all the Lohams (minus Serge) who actually admit, during dessert, that the killing was just an incident. Boys will be boys. The polite conversation of the dinner table has condoned the killing of a homeless woman by simply referring to it as an "incident" and not an atrocity.

Oh, by the way, Paul was placed on indefinite leave for this:

"Paul, what this is really about is something you said about victims. Please correct me if I'm wrong. About victims of the Second World War."

I leaned back, or at least I tried to lean back, but it was a hard, straight-backed chair that didn't give.

"It has been said that you have expressed yourself in rather belittling terms about those victims," the principal said. "You supposedly said that they had only themselves to blame for being victims."

"I never put it that way. I only said that not all victims are automatically innocent victims."

Koch seems to know how easy it is to simply apply labels to those that are outside of our polite dinner conversations. What starts as simple gesture and platitude can turn deadly. This impulse, so easy to fall in to, has resulted in some of the most inhuman savagery in a thoroughly human world. This tension propels The Dinner forward until the final course. While a little prolonged and puffed out midway, this is a novel with teeth that latches on for a truly savory experience.

The Dinner by Herman Koch
ISBN: 978-0770437855
304 pages