The Dinner, by Herman Koch, is a tale woven together with cruelty. Built around a tortuous five-course meal at an upscale Dutch restaurant the story bristles with uncompromising malice from the start.
Brothers Serge and Paul Lohman, accompanied by their wives Claire and Babette respectively, gather one evening to discuss some unpleasant family business. Narrator Paul is first on the scene, as he rants internally and to Claire over his brother’s sovereign choice of venue. As a candidate for Prime Minister Serge cannot be seen in anything less than a posh eatery. When Serge arrives we instantly see the smarmy politician Paul loathes. He is clearly enamored with his public persona as he attempts to schmooze everyone, even those at the dinner table who know his true colors. However, we soon learn the brothers have more in common than they care to admit.
Midway through the novel we discover the Lohman’s are protecting a monstrous secret about their two teenage sons. Together the boys have perpetrated a violent crime that shocked the nation, and they have yet to be discovered. As the evening grinds on the diners toss aside their loosely worn masks of civility, to reveal that rotten apples do not fall far from diseased trees. Paul and Serge have the same vile blood coursing in their veins, and procreation has assured the Lohman penchant for cruelty and mayhem will continue.
The Dinner is filled with sadistic voices, none of which are sympathetic in any shape or form. Koch pounds each page with a bleak pen. There is no light at the end of the tunnel as the characters rapidly descend from an already sordid place. The point that evil breeds evil is taken, but it drives the story into a dead end. If Koch shifted the focus in the slightest to the social ills of corrupted youth, he may have redeemed himself. However, with no contrition from any source, the value of this wretched exchange is nil.