The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch to English in 2012, was an international best-seller. At the heart of it is the story of a family whose utter moral bankruptcy factors chillingly into their peculiar formula for happiness.
The story centers around a five course dinner for four at a preposterously posh restaurant in Amsterdam, where the average patron might wait six months for a table. A pretentious waiter describes the pedigree of each serving’s meager morsels pointing to them haughtily with his pinky finger. “This is the Syrian goat cheese with toasted Tuscan pecans over shaved Roman lamb’s lettuce.” (I just made that up.)
The dinner party is comprised of Paul, a history teacher on “medical leave”, his wife Claire, Paul’s older brother Serge, a shoe-in candidate for next Prime Minister of Holland, and Serge’s stunning wife Babette. Both couples have 15 year old sons. The purpose of this dinner is to discuss what to do about a grotesque crime committed together by the young cousins, which has outraged the nation. To the family, the larger concern is what might happen to the boys’ future should they be caught. The reader is asked to explore just how far one might go to protect their criminally violent children.
Paul is the narrator. At first he seems justified in his comically misanthropic views. Fun is poked at his pompous sibling, mock civility of the snooty restaurant, (perhaps society in general), middle-class values, and Dutch politics.
As the meal wears on, the reader realizes that Paul’s anger is pathological and that he is a sick and violent man with dangerous ideas that are not his exclusive province. Eventually, Paul’s unreliability as a narrator becomes horrifyingly clear and the reader’s view of characters shifts.
Prepare yourself to not find a single likeable character in this novel. Yet, the book is well-written, poses some seriously interesting questions, and if you're in a book group, there's a lot here to discuss.