The Dinner: Five courses in an upmarket restaurant. In attendance: Paul Lohman, an out-of-work teacher, his irritatingly successful brother Serge who is on the cusp of becoming the next Dutch Prime Minister, and their wives Claire and Babette. Their problem: to name the horrendous thing their teenage sons have done and then decide how far they’re willing to go to help them.
Koch squeezes from the situation as much satirical and tension-building juice as he can. At the restaurant, with its comical rituals of food presentation, servility and interruption, it’s possible for the foursome to maintain the pretence of civil behaviour and the integrity of Serge’s public image, while all about them the truth about the boys’ actions is bearing down on them.
Once Koch does reveal the secret about their boys, the novel shifts its energies. The trick Koch plays is to lock so tightly onto Paul’s point of view as the self-declared everyman, infuriated by the charade of the restaurant and its distillation of wider social hypocrisies, its class pretentions, that when we start to notice that things in his world are not all quite right, we have no choice but to go along for the ride. Paul is a righteously angry man and there’s a lot about him the liberal-minded reader will nod in agreement with.
The trick largely depends on how convincingly and for how long Koch can pull off the sympathy effect. I certainly saw through the façade pretty early on, so perhaps he’s not really trying too hard. It’s a delicate balance.
If Paul really is an everyman then there might be questions larger than the boys’ behaviour to worry about. Do we really want to be everymen like Paul? Who in the novel should we be like? The answer becomes more and more elusive.
The Dinner was a best-seller for Koch in his native Netherlands, and it will be interesting to see how far the social tensions it proposes to examine translate to an Australian audience. The comparison is to a novel like Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Some of the material around freedom of speech, racial politics and the ‘disposability’ of outsiders, while obviously potent here in Australia would, I suspect, strike a much more direct chord in the Netherlands, particularly given that the novel makes reference to the Bush era when nationalist (mostly anti-Islamic) politics in that country bloomed, and a number of prominent assassinations were blamed on the passions that politics inflamed.
Koch uses the novel to set off a battery of questions. To whom and to what do we owe allegiance? Is it to state-defined abstractions like justice, and truth? Or is it to ‘natural’ institutions like the family? What is a family in any case? What kind of responsibility do we have toward others? Are we really responsible for our own actions? If we are governed both by social or genetic imperatives, can we really claim to exercise free will? While it asks these questions, The Dinner is not the kind of novel that pretends to be their proving ground. Rather, it is a novel of provocations.