Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Dinner: Pull Up a Chair

The Dinner by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett)
(Hogarth / AudioGo, 2013)
Format: audio CD via library (read by Clive Mantel)

From Goodreads: "It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse—the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love. Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator, The Dinner promises to be the topic of countless dinner party debates."

I'm all: woah. Then I'm all: yikes. Then I'm all: NO WAY. What a horrifying delightful spectacle of a novel. Paul deftly drew me right into the midst of his disdain for his brother, the very up-and-coming politician Serge. I'm right there with him as he disparages the fancy restaurant, the pretensions of the headwaiter, the tiny portions. He speaks with love and tenderness and respect for his wife and son, even while alluding to the very hot water his son and Serge's son are in. 

But the anecdotes pile up, inexorably, each one a little signpost. And suddenly I'm on a path, being guided by a trickster demon, and there's no way to go back. By the time Paul orders a grappa, I'm peering at this book through my fingers (I can do that when it's an audiobook.) 

Clive Mantel ate up The Dinner with a spoon. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) The way he spits out the name "Serge" every time; his fond tone whenever he mentions Paul's wife; how calmly he relates Paul's increasingly eye-popping stories as if he, like Paul, considers them just everyday moments.  

I've seen a lot of reviews saying that The Dinner is an exploration of how far we will go for those we love, and that sort of thing. To me, that's not the theme. Instead, it's about facades, why we construct them, and how those we love do and don't see through them. Paul repeatedly quotes the opening of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.") What Koch examines in The Dinner is the unique versions of unhappiness that make up one of those unhappy families; a funny and compelling and dire warning to all.

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