‘The Dinner’: A Deliciously Appetizing Look into a Parental Nightmare: A Conversation with Author Herman Koch
In 2012, we were enthralled with American writer Gillian Flynn’s thriller novel, Gone Girl, published by Crown Publishing; a story that focused on whether or not the main character, Nick Dunne, murdered his wife. 2013 welcomed a new suspenseful story picked up by the same publisher. This time, the novel came from overseas, specifically from the mind of Dutch writer Herman Koch, a man who had once been an actor in a popular comedic television series slightly reminiscent of Monty Python.
Perhaps his acting days gave him a unique perception into the human psyche (not to mention, the ability to build upon human emotion in written word like an actor on stage, holding us in anticipation until the climactic moment), as not only does his sixth novel, The Dinner, at times read like a well-crafted play, but it delves deep into the problems of society today, including homelessness, violence and parenting.
Published in over 21 languages, the novel has become a hit sensation across Europe, making its way slowly to America. The novel, takes place during the course of one day, or rather during dinnertime in a fancy restaurant, where the main character Paul Lohman, along with his wife Claire, his brother Serge (who is at the cusp of a big political career), and his brother’s wife, Babette, discuss the future of their sons after they learn of their secret. Through flashbacks, we soon discover that the two teenage boys were involved in a horrendous act with a homeless person; one that will forever change their lives as well as that of their parents. And this is where Koch excels at what he does. Instead of taking the old and tired approach of telling the story of murder and violence with good trumping evil, he takes us into the world of two families who question their own actions and character, as well as the road that ought to be taken (in the case of Paul, an unconventional one at that) by them as both: the loving parents and members of society. While violence is a predominant theme in the psychological thriller, the ongoing questions that pervade the reader’s mind are: what would I do if my child hurt someone and my family was the only one who knew – would I tell the secret or would I keep it and my child safe from punishment — and what would their actions say about me? Moreover, the story addresses the issue of whether or not children’s poor choices and bad actions are a reflection of a parent’s character.
Though this is Koch’s first novel to be published in English, and many might argue that it is one that will not appeal to the general masses, that it is rather of “an acquired taste of a cultish few,” as the New York Times wrote in their review, it cannot be denied that the perspective and theme of the story is innovative and one that haunts the reader long after the last page is turned.
In the midst of writing a new novel, which is to be due out in 2014, Koch took the time to answer some of our more pressing questions on the inspiration behind the story, whether or not the book is meant to be likened to a play, and what his methods are in dealing with writer’s block (we’ll give you a hint: it’s not the overused cliché of writers abusing alcohol, rather it has to do with some form of exercise).
GALO: The Dinner, which recently sat at the 12th position on the New York Times bestseller list, is your first novel to be translated into the English language. Have you discovered that each country has a different reaction to the novel, or are the responses from readers and critics generally the same across the board (perhaps some things are lost in translation, such as certain social, cultural or historical nuances specific to the country of Holland; in addition, some have called the novel satirical, or a breezy beach read – do you agree with them)? And how do you hope that readers are reacting to your novel in the U.S. — is there anything you fear they might not understand? In other words, do you feel that foreign fiction is palatable to the foreign reader?
Herman Koch: The reactions go from considering the novel more as light entertainment (beach read!) to being a serious criticism of Dutch society, or Western society in general. Although, I always part from the idea that a novel should be entertaining at least on one level (the story or plot, for example), I tried to produce a sense of uneasiness in the reader (and in myself for that matter) as well. This has to do with how far you are willing to identify with the main character, Paul, who at the beginning seems rather sympathetic. Some readers have let me know that they consider him “a monster” in the end, other readers (a minority, I must admit) said: “Finally a character who does what we are all thinking!”
GALO: The character of Paul is very multifaceted, as he shows dashes of mystery, awareness, sarcasm, defiance, cruelty and love, among other traits. His thoughts become rooted in the reader’s subconscious, and at times despite his way of thinking of what should be done with those involved in the crime, readers will begin to understand him and the choices he makes. In fact, the novel takes an interesting perspective of showing things from the other side of the so-called pendulum, and makes the reader think: “What would I do if that was somebody I cared for?” What made you consider concentrating the book’s theme on the idea of how far one would go for the people they love?
HK: I just tried to put myself to the test. That is why I made the crime a serious one, not just robbing a bicycle or breaking into a school. I parted from the idea that I would protect my own son at all costs, even if he turned out a real criminal. The responsibility you can feel in having a criminal son, not only in the upbringing you gave him, but more in the biological aspects, the genes, etc. If you like that your child has the same eyes or nose as you, and might like exactly the same food or drink, it leads to the consequence that in the case of a violent act committed by your offspring, you have to ask the question: “How violent am I myself?” That is also why I introduced the theme of adoption where this question of “biological” responsibility is usually dismissed.
GALO: Why did you choose to center the novel on a single day during dinnertime and in a restaurant, instead of having it take place in the vicinity of one of the families’ homes, a park, or even across various settings, stretches of time, or days?
HK: I liked the idea of a single day, a bit like a classical play. And in a restaurant you normally don’t leave before dessert and coffee is served. You also have to talk. In a setting like a home, you can watch television for a while, or you can help clear the table. It might even come to a real fight, as it has before in Paul’s home, while in a restaurant you try to behave.
(Interview continued on next page)