A delicious literary repast with “The Dinner”…

One of the great lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime obsession with travel is this:  despite linguistic or cultural differences, people are people.  More often than not that’s a positive thing, and I’ve experienced unbelievable kindness from complete strangers.  But blindingly fierce parental love, sibling rivalry, using food as a social marker, fascination with fame, and self-delusion are also all traits that I have observed in every country I’ve visited.  That they are also the moving forces behind Dutch writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner (Crown Publishing Group, 2012) only serve to make this exquisite novel more accessible and universal.

Set in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam, The Dinner is narrated by one of the most unsympathetic protagonists I have ever encountered in my reading.  Over the course of the aperitif, the appetizer, the main course, the dessert, and the digestif, Paul Lohman reveals that he and his brother, high-profile politician Serge Lohman (widely considered the likely next Prime Minister) and their wives have a problem with their two fifteen-year-old sons.  The boys have committed a violent crime.

To reveal any more than that is to deprive the reader of the surprising twists and turns that make this novel so remarkable.  The story is compelling, but it is the structure and the setting that makes you think this could just as easily be happening in your own community, among people you know.  The genius lies in the way in which you are reeled in by the protagonist and led to think he might be trustworthy.  I truly wanted to like Paul Lohman, a regular guy whose acerbic comments about the restaurant’s menu and staff and prices mirror some of my own thoughts when dining in higher-end establishments:

“The lamb’s neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and is served with arugula,” said the manager, who had by now arrived with Claire’s plate and was pointing with his pinky at two miniscule pieces of meat.  “The sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.”

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness.  Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids.  The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.

It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation.  “You wouldn’t even dare!” the plate said, and laughed in your face.

It’s not until much later we learn that Paul is a “nonactive” teacher who has been removed from the classroom for never-quite-explained medical reasons.  These words resonated with my own current situation, and made me want even more to give him the benefit of the doubt, even as uncertainty about his character and morality were starting to surface:

Above all, I relished the fact that I didn’t have to get up in front of the classroom every day:  all those faces looking at me, a full hour-long, and then other faces that came in for the next hour, and on and on, one hour after the next.  If you’ve never stood in front of a class, you don’t know what it’s like.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much where my sympathy with Paul ended.  By the conclusion of the novel, I found it puzzling that he was even still walking free and able to go to expensive restaurants, instead of sitting in jail.  And the solution he and his wife devised for covering the actions of their son are nothing short of reprehensible.

The great accomplishment of this international best-seller lies in the way in which the reader is forced to confront the self-delusion all humans practice to a certain degree.  Very early in my teaching career I realized that there would always be parents who would go to extraordinary lengths to protect and excuse their child, whether out of misguided devotion or a deep ego I could never be sure.  Of one thing I was always sure, though, and it served me well in trying to deal with a wide variety of awkward situations:  every parent loves their child.  As I put down the book, I found myself wondering how I would have confronted a similar challenge.  I would like to think that I’m made of better stuff.  But am I?  And that is the mark of transcendent literature.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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