Herman Koch's The Dinner

Some readers complain that none of the characters in Herman Koch's The Dinner is likable, but a good story need not have likable ones as along as they are interesting. And the narrator Paul Lohman is certainly interesting, though unbalanced and even creepy. Through this unreliable narrator, Herman Koch reveals the dark secret behind the two respectable middleclass families: those of Paul and his brother Serge. And the high-class restaurant in which they dine sharpens the boys' atrocity and Paul's madness.

At first, we empathize with Paul about his brother being a bourgeois snob and a sleazy politician, but we eventually learned of his violence and insanity and the brother is revealed to be a better man, though less than likeable. It is this use of the unreliable narrator to uncover not only the boys' atrocities but also the narrator's madness that makes the story interesting. Yes, the boys' killing the homeless woman is horrendous, but Paul's and Claire's abetting their son to eliminate Serge's adopted son in order to hide the original crime, that is malicious and even evil.

Guinea Fowl (Photo: Ewan Munro. London, UK)

Though Paul Lohman is interesting, Koch's peeling off layers of facade to reveal the dark soul within this man is what pulls me to the book. First person narration certainly helps to confine our view to Paul's and forces us to try to sympathize with his thoughts and actions, but only up to a certain point. As our view begin to expand and we learn of the truth, our feelings turn from sympathy to disgust. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day where we keep learning bits of the butler's biases and idiosyncrasies after each page.

The Church of St. Nicholas, Amsterdam (Photo: Swimmerguy269)

The Dinner is an indictment of the bourgeois lifestyle, the preoccupation with appearances, and the resulting skeletons hidden in the proverbial closet. The humorous style lends greater impact to the enormity of the dark secrets and the sick minds. Sure, there aren't any likeable characters in the story, least of all the restaurant manager, but the story is enjoyable.
Herman Koch

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