July 27, 2012 10:17 pm

Three-course nightmare

Herman Koch’s European bestselling novel is a terrifying tale of a family unravelling
Christoffer Pettersson's angry man illustration©Christoffer Pettersson

The Dinner, by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett, Atlantic, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

 

It is almost unheard of for a Dutch novel to become an international bestseller, but Herman Koch’s The Dinner has done the trick. In the Netherlands this psychological thriller sold 400,000 copies in hardback alone, and has so far sold more than 1m copies worldwide. Despite a deceptively shaky narrative start, The Dinner deserves its success.

Koch is best known in his own country as a television comedian. He stands in the long Dutch comic tradition of making fun of middle-class types: perhaps his most famous televisual creation is a bored dipsomaniac frat boy.

For the first 100 pages, you wonder: were the Dutch sales of this book down to the author’s TV fame? The setting is Dutch bourgeois: two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in a ridiculously pretentious restaurant. One brother is expected to become Dutch prime minister at the next election; the other, the narrator Paul, mocks both his sibling and contemporary middle-class mores.

Everything in the setting reeks of comfort. The dinner seems at first like just another of those evenings in tedious company, where everyone wonders why they have wasted the money and time, and the only aim is to finish as soon as possible and get home. True, there is an undertone of disquiet, of something going wrong in Paul’s happy family: just before dinner, we learn, he has seen something distressing on his son’s mobile phone. However, at this stage, the novel still mostly reads as feeble social satire.

In one diatribe, Paul lashes out at Dutch Francophiles (including his brother) who buy houses in the Dordogne (“they failed to see that the local French population ... fairly retched at the sight of Dutch people.”) Paul’s main target, however, is the restaurant itself: you could get the same bottles of wine for much less in the supermarket; nowhere else in the world but in Holland (“and when I say nowhere I literally mean nowhere”) do waiters top up your glass without asking you. So far, so banal.

But then the novel transforms. Little by little, we learn about the terrible things unfolding inside Paul’s family, in real time, that very evening. The intensity deepens almost by the page. Every metaphorical “gun” that we were shown early in the book goes off later. Koch shows how fragile is a family’s happiness.

Paul’s ostensibly perfect wife, Claire, is revealed to be a rather more complex character than we had first thought. Above all, we discover that Paul himself is not a dull bourgeois but something much darker. His bitchy social commentary mushrooms into what at first seems to be an affected nihilism, and then turns out to be the real thing. Eventually, we realise we are seeing everything from inside a very sick head.

With hindsight, the banal first act turns out to be essential to Koch’s achievement. Much of the shock of the book comes from watching Paul change from a man irritated by his brother’s table manners into a figure from a nightmare.

Koch pulls off the novel’s transformation with almost total success. Very largely – though not entirely – he persuades us to believe in the later horrors just as we did the early banalities. This is a virtuoso achievement: a TV comedian who, in his fifties, reveals himself as a born novelist. Starting in the overpriced restaurant, Koch ends up homing in on some of the most ancient and fundamental themes: murder and heredity, siblings and madness.

It is all written in brisk prose, which aspires to nothing more than moving the plot along. Sam Garrett’s translation is mostly up to the job, albeit with the odd awkward rendering: “You come up for your child”, for instance, should have been “You stand up for your child”. Minor cavils aside, this is the perfect undemanding, credible, terrifying beach read.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

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