You have to wonder sometimes: what is better, a good book written badly or a bad book written well? That is a basic question, one, however, you won’t be able to answer without making a complete fool of yourself.
Admittedly, the first few pages of Herman Koch’s celebrated novel The Dinner felt rather awkward and made D.H. Lawrence come off like Marcel Proust. I’m ready to put part of the blame on the translator (the book was originally written in Dutch), but if we are completely honest here, and I’m speaking from some experience, this is the sort of unsubtle, crude style no translator would be able to refurbish or deconstruct. It just feels bumpy, even if that may actually reflect the psychiatric issue underneath this undeniably brilliant novel.
In a way, this is a book that thrives on one gimmick. But what a gimmick. Martin Amis has once said that there are two kinds of titles: those that are stated directly in the text and those that are all over the book without making any physical appearance on any of the pages. In a way, Herman Koch’s novel is pretty much its title. The title doesn’t even leave these pages; just have a look at the names of the chapters: “Aperitif”, “Main Course”, “Dessert”, etc. Basically, we have two couples coming to a restaurant to have dinner. The novel starts right before the arrival of the menus and ends soon after the tip is given. You have to admit that’s rather intriguing.
Certainly it’s not that simple. I’ve mentioned a psychiatric issue and that is only a part of it. Obviously the dinner is only a pretext, a social thing. The couples come to the restaurant to discuss a problem of such hair-raising complexity that the setting, the actual meal, seems grotesque and almost farcical. The sections of the novel that take place at or around the dinner table are actually written with a great sense of irony; these are the catchy parts of the book. However, it’s all only a mere façade: the real things are happening (or have already happened) outside the restaurant. The narrator’s flashbacks, creeping through rose wine and cottage cheese, make up the actual plot. It’s an intense and gripping story about what you are prepared to do for the person you love.
The book certainly resembles Yasmina Reza’s great play God Of Carnage (I also very much recommend Polanski’s recent adaptation of it, simply called Carnage), only whereas the play was two couples fighting bloody wars over a broken nose, The Dinner sees two unlikely brothers and their wives dealing with a much graver issue. I have to say that the way Herman Koch resolves the conflict is both disturbing and hilarious – certainly a very European ending. Make your own judgement there.
So the book titled The Dinner turns out to be quite controversial in the end. Eisenstein would have called it a perfect juxtaposition. I would call it a terrific book that deserved to be even better.