Monday, April 5, 2010

Review of Herman Koch's 'Het Diner'

By Tom Kando

This post will be of interest to Dutchmen, especially the many who have read Herman Koch's best-seller.

I just finished Dutch author Herman Koch's novel HET DINER, published in 2009. Fabulous, fascinating, a page turner, impossible to put down. I swear, the Dutch have some awesome writing. Too bad much of it isn't translated and available to a wider world-wide audience.

Het Diner is mesmerizing and deeply disturbing. Quick partial summary: Two couples go out to dinner in a fancy restaurant. The entire book, the entire narrative, occurs during the 4 hours of that dinner. Everything else, the tragedies that unfold, are all brought into the story during that 4-hour episode, as earlier events, events occurring elsewhere in the city.

The book's main character - the "I" person, seemingly the author, - is Paul, an apparently normal, average (former) high-school teacher. His loving wife is Claire. The other couple consists of Paul's brother Serge, and his wife Babette. Serge is famous. He is in all likelihood the country's next prime minister. In the restaurant, in the streets, people recognize him and approach him admiringly.

Paul loathes his famous brother Serge. He can't stand Serge's phoniness and superficiality, his typical politician's persona.

There are many things that aggravate Paul, and he shares his many irritations with the reader - his contempt for his brother, for their absurd 500-euro dinner, for the idiotic waiters' pompous lectures about the fancy dishes they bring to the table, etc.

Paul seems above all to loathe hypocrisy, and to value honesty.He ponders how so many morons pay lip-service to political correctness and think that this allows them to be assholes. If you hate George W. Bush and you are anti-American, you think that this entitles you to treat everyone like shit, Paul muses. He also deeply loves his family - his wife Claire and his teen-age son Michel.

So we, the readers, like Paul. He is a right-on guy.

Bit by bit as the evening unfolds and the fancy dinner progresses, the reader finds out recent and not so recent bone-chilling events in the life of this extended family - which comprises Paul, his big-shot brother Serge, and their respective children and wives:

Just hours earlier, Paul had accidentally put his son Michel's I-phone in his own pocket, something he only realizes when his son Michel calls him, at the restaurant. Michel bikes over to the restaurant to retrieve his phone from his dad. But before he gets there, his father snoops on him, picks up some of his phone messages and even sees a video recording of his son, along with Serge's two teen-age sons, beating up a homeless man.

It gets worse: Later in the evening, we find out that some weeks earlier, the boys torched a homeless woman to death. The authorities dont have any leads about the gruesome murder, so unless someone talks, the boys will get away with it.

Paul and Claire, the parents for whom their beloved son can do no wrong, are hellbent on protecting Michel, counting on it that the murder will simply blow over.

On the other hand, Serge, the prospective future prime minister, feels that this is such an enormous skeleton in his family's closet that he has to withdraw his candicacy, i.e. sacrifice his entire political career.

We also find out, during dinner, that Paul has a history of violence, that he was fired as a high-school teacher, that he is on psychotropic medication, that he beat up his brother Serge mercilessly over a family argument, that he also beat to a pulp the high-school principal who criticized his son's term paper, etc.

In fact, Paul, with his wonderful values of honesty, straight-talk and uncompromising love and support for his son, is an out-of-control nutcase who doesn't mind hurting anybody who even mildly aggravates him, and who finds torching to death a homeless woman a forgivable accident (as long as it's done by his son). To suggest that this might be "murder" is preposterous, in his delusional, self-righteous thinking.

And when his son and nephews beat up old homeless men, Paul does not see this as skinheadlike behavior, but merely as a forgivable prank. He does not see his son as the fascistoid monster he is (Michel also favors vigilantism and the pre-trial execution of suspects by "private" means) - just as a naive boy who made some mistakes. Paul's wife is not far behind, in this frame of mind.

There is a lot more to the story. I can't do justice to all the details, or to the final denouement.

The main question with which one is left at the end is this: What exactly is Herman Koch telling us?

For one thing, the book is about the agony of a parent whose child has gone astray. What is one to do? I will say this: If I were in Paul's shoes, I would quite probably act as he does: go all out to save my child, to prevent him from going to prison.

Beyond that, I have to be careful in my critique of this book. If I say, "Paul is an asshole, he is totally wrong, but Koch makes him out to be a noble figure," I run the risk of being seen as a simpleton who has misunderstood the entire book. Because maybe Koch's central point is precisely that Paul is a delusional psychopath who will go to any rationalization to protect his son, his family and his "happiness" (about which he talks a lot). This interpretation would be supported, for example, by reviewer Pieter Steinz (NRC Handelsblad), who describes the story as "Dr. Jekyll in the Watergraafsmeer," presumably feeling the same way about Paul as I do.

But is this sure? Or are we being told, in this morality tale, that Paul and his wife are actually very good guys? And that brother Serge is indeed an asshole? If this is what we are told, it's difficult to swallow. Serge, the phony and despicable politician, is prepared to sacrifice his political career, in view of the enormous evil that has occurred in his extended family. Who is the asshole?

Okay, I know, one should not simplify this complex novel, as I am trying to do. I am doing violence to it. The novel is sophisticated, as are Dutch writers, often. This is wonderful. The novel's strength is the AMBIGUITY it expresses regarding murder, evil, loyalty, love, honesty, hypocrisy. Maybe I should leave it at that, and not ask Koch: Who, finally, is the bad guy?" Maybe that is a stupid American question.

And yet, here is my conclusion, whether you like it or not: I find Paul an asshole, his brother less so. I find that when an innocent homeless woman is murdered and FRIED to death, by a gang of fascistoid teenagers whose hobby it is to beat up homeless people, then there is a cry for justice, i.e. for consequences, for punishment. I assume that Koch agrees,...but I am not totally sure.... leave comment here