Friday, March 15, 2013

Scraping the Plate: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Just finished this novel late this afternoon. Overall I can say I wasn't expecting it to be as profound or as layered as I believe it to be. With U.S. hype for the book teasing, "What would you do if you were the parents?", my expectations were lured way, way off course before I turned to page one.

First off, I chose to read The Dinner because 1) I haven't read a contemporary Dutch novel in many years, and 2) because it earned the author a prestigious literary prize in his home country. In other words, I read it only because it was highly regarded in the Netherlands.

I fully expected the novel to resonate with themes relating to the modern culture of parenting and the family in the early 21st century, as I stated above. (That's what you get for falling for publisher hype.) And, although I suppose it may be construed that the novel did that, somehow or other, I don't think that was among the author's primary intentions. So--I was pleasantly surprised to discover what I saw as the author's other intentions!

I haven't read any critical reviews of the novel yet, but as I was reading, I viewed The Dinner as one enormous allegory of  20th-century European history, from the rise of Fascism through the millenium, especially the ways in which the xenophobic forces unleashed and unfettered during the fascist era may still be influencing European nations today, as seen in the struggle with the assimilation of immigrant cultures in the 21st-century. (I'm not saying Europe is alone in this, the US is just as xenophobic, even though Koch wasn't aiming his darts at the US). 

The faceless, shapeless form of a woman under a cover of trashbags, a homeless person "seeking winter refuge",or, conversely, "obscenely loitering" in an ATM cubicle, is viewed as trash by Koch's characters, trash to be burned and ultimately, trash that must never cast in doubt the future dreams of Michel, the son of the elite narrator and his wife or his cousin Rick. Beau, Rick's adopted brother from Africa must also be cast out and trashed lest he spoil the dreams.

I would enjoy hearing how other readers have viewed this novel. I was amused by U.S. customer reviews stating that The Dinner is flawed because there are no likeable characters. What a horror novel if Koch had made the characters at all likeable!


  1. Glad you read and reviewed this book. I was considering it as the author was compared by some to Thomas Bernhard, who I admire. You allayed my concerns making me more confident that I will add it to my TBR pile. Thanks.

    1. James,
      I believe you will find much to admire in this novel. Additionally, the narrator, once a history teacher, reveals several of his educational exploits, which you will find very interesting and revealing, I'm sure. It's a quick read. Enjoy!


  2. This is my first time hearing about The Dinner and it seems like something I would definitely enjoy. Also, it's been way too long since I've read anything in translation, and this sounds like a really refreshing book.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on this one: I didn't even think of this being an allegory because I was thrown by all the U.S. marketing that this was another We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (parenting issues and unreliable narrators as the overall focus).