Dutch author Herman Koch’s new novel The Dinner is one meal you may feel a little strange after. The titular dinner is one planned by two couples — two brothers and their wives — at which they must discuss a terrible crime most likely committed by their sons. The crime is not yet public, but grainy video footage exists — and both sets of parents know it depicts their offspring.
Koch tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep that he’s a parent himself, “so the idea more or less came from there, just a feeling of what you would do to defend your children,” even in an extreme case like the one Koch creates in The Dinner.
The two couples meet at a rather posh restaurant; the food is organic, the clientele upscale — politicians, artists and sports stars — and at first, they seem to be talking about their values, of tolerance and anti-racism, and what’s important to them as parents. And at first, the narrator, Paul, seems sympathetic. “But then suddenly, not only are his opinions but maybe his actions are becoming more extreme,” Koch says, “so we might start to doubt if the version he gives of what the other three adults at the table are telling us, or how they are, is really the true story.”
Readers discover gradually that Paul is an unreliable narrator, and Koch says the same thing happened to him as he was writing the story. “It’s only in the first sentence of the book, that you learn something about the character when he says, ‘we were going out to dinner and I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we are there,’ so he’s already hiding something.”
Paul is also a parent, who’s trying very hard to transmit his values to his teenaged son, Michel. “Of course, this might not be the right set of values, but he actually believes that his values are right,” Koch says. “He believes in happiness, he believes in the happy marriage that he has, and his happy family, and he wants to defend this family against all outside forces, whether this is the police, or psychologists, or social workers. They won’t come in.” Koch compares Paul to Tony Soprano — someone who’s sympathetic in defense of his family, even though we know his values aren’t ours.
Paul is also trying to give his son space and privacy, despite his knowledge of the probably crime. “In one way or another, every parent is curious what their children … what are they doing when we don’t see? … What double lives are they leading? Is there something else?” Koch says Paul’s combination of curiosity and desire to give his son privacy reflect his own real-world attitudes towards his son.
The Dinnerhas been out in Europe for some time, and Koch says peoples’ reactions run the gamut. “It goes from people saying, ‘oh, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not, to put it mildly,’ and there’s another part of the readers who say, ‘finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.’”