During a fancy dinner, while the drinks flow and the waiters fuss, and two couples make polite small talk, true savagery seeps below the surface. In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, the couples-two brothers and their wives- know what is about to erupt, but still they persist in friendly but distant conversation, talking vaguely about work and vintage wine.
Koch structures his book around a five course meal-from appetizer to dessert. Throughout the meal, our narrator Paul rages and nitpicks his successful politician brother, Serge. To Paul, everything Serge does has a selfish undertone. From picking up the check, to adopting a black son years before he even got into politics, Paul is sure that Serge only cares about Serge. He skips between listing his brother’s perceived faults, and obsessing over his sister-in-law Babette.
The two men don’t have anything in common. But boy, their sons sure do. They’ve committed a terrible crime, but one they’re sure to get away with if everyone keeps their mouths shut. And that’s what the dinner is about-what to do with their boys. Most reviewers like to reveal what the boys did. I won’t. I went into this book blind, and I think knowing nothing really raised my enjoyment of this book.
But there are really two reveals in the book. One is direct-what the boys did. The other is more insidious. In the beginning, I thought I understood our narrator. I didn’t like him, but I thought I understood how a retired schoolteacher could be so resentful of a famous brother. It wasn’t until the book continued that I understood the boys weren’t the only monsters. Polite conversation, avoiding unpleasant topics, avoiding harsh truths—eventually they all disintegrate and the people at that dinner table say and do things that the “civilized” society they pretend to belong to would find shocking.
I started out being politely interested in this book. It started with a narrator with a chip on his shoulder listing everything he hates about everyone. I think we all know people like that in real life, so maybe we’re not that interested in reading it in our free time. But as the book delved deeper into Paul’s mind, I was hooked. The more he said, the less I trusted him, and the more I wanted to hear him say.