Library Director’s Notebook
The Dinner by Herman Koch is a slender novel that might also have been written as a play. By that I mean most of the action takes place in a somewhat claustrophobic setting of a chic, pricey restaurant in Holland, peopled by the rich and famous, or the merely quite well-to-do. The major dramatis personae are also limited, including Paul,the narrator, his wife Claire, his brother Serge and his sister-in-law Babette. Overly solicitous waiters and eager admirers of Serge flutter around them like flies around a particularly juicy carcass.
From the very beginning Paul lets us know that he does not want to attend this small dinner with his brother and his wife. It becomes obvious after just a few of Paul’s tetchy comments that the brothers are not close. Serge is one of the beautiful people, a very handsome man running for the country’s highest office. His wife Babette is a woman whose beauty also attracts a lot of attention in any setting, but especially in the sheltered world of a small, exclusive restaurant. By contrast Paul and Claire fade into the background, although it soon becomes obvious that is timid or insignificant.
The four of them know they must have an important talk about their respective teenage children. Something very serious has occurred, and each of them wants to face up to the problem, while at the same time trying to delay the discussion, and if possible manage the outcome, for their own sakes as well as for their children.
Little by little, Paul reveals to the reader just what he suspects his son Michel and his cousins have done and what grave and very public consequences are almost certain to follow their actions. Paul complains and frets about society, anxious about the growing violence in the world, yet taking no part of the blame, as he alternately condemns and then seeks to exonerate and protect Michel. He regrets his lack of closeness with Michel and is jealous of Michel’s obviously close relationship with his mother.
The farther along we read, the more we come to realize that Paul falls into the category of an unreliable narrator. So much of what he relates, the events leading up to his son’s crimes, his relationship with Claire, his interpretation of his brother’s motives becomes less trustworthy every moment. Only one thing becomes most pressingly urgent: Paul and Claire will do anything to save their son, no matter what the consequences. It is this closing of ranks and complete lack of compassion or concern for anyone else but the immediate, core unit that drives this novel to its extremely unpleasant conclusion. Comparisons to recent current events such as the “Affluenza” case regarding a wealthy teen on the run with his mother, after breaking the terms of his parole, are both inevitable and disturbing when reading The Dinner.