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Interview: Caroline O’Doherty
Moral ambiguity is on the menu in Herman Koch’s The Dinner and the author hopes it causes crippling mental indigestion. The Dutchman, who has been translated into English for the first time, enjoys making readers shift uneasily in their chairs as all they thought they believed and believed they thought becomes a bubbling stew of uncertainty.
He has plenty of practice stirring things up after spending 10 years on a television show in Holland that took swipes at sacred cows and poked fun at political correctness.
“I don’t want to hear too much conviction from anyone,” he explains. “I don’t believe that people should be so secure that they are completely convinced of something.
“So when somebody is very left wing, I make some very reactionary comments and with real reactionaries, I start behaving like Che Guevara. On TV we always tried to upset everybody so that nobody had security.”
Following that recipe into fiction writing, Koch has produced a novel that serves up every parent’s nightmare — with a twist.
What if you stood to lose your child, not to some terrible tragedy or evil perpetrated against them, but through a misdeed of their own so dreadful as to warrant almost certain incarceration should their culpability be uncovered?
What if even to acknowledge their guilt privately would mean losing all sense of the child you thought they were and the person you believed you were bringing them up to be?
What lengths would you go to in protecting them and how much of yourself and your values would you be willing to sacrifice in the process?
This is the dilemma Koch dishes out to two outwardly respectable brothers, each with a 15-year-old son, who meet with their wives to discuss what to do about the boys’ as yet undetected involvement in the death of a homeless person.
The very fact that the couples meet to discuss the affair in the kind of restaurant where only the illustrious can get a table at short notice shows they are the type of people unused to being discommoded and comedy, albeit of the darkest kind, is inevitable.
Paul, the narrator, can’t help persecuting the hapless manager over the restaurant’s pretensions and trying to get one up on his more successful brother, Serge, despite the more pressing matter at hand.
As his thoughts drift between courses, we get a taste of the preoccupations of the prosperous with their health club memberships, wine appreciation courses and holiday homes in France.
And as the conversation slowly exhausts all stalling tactics and finally moves towards the crucial subject, their failure to reconcile liberal thought and conservative instinct over immigration issues and the generous social safety net their taxes fund is revealed.
Then there is the mindless violence and unrestrained aggression of well-educated young men from ‘good’ homes who seem to believe status elevates them above laws intended only to control common thugs.
The setting could just as easily be boom-time Ireland instead of Holland but Koch has heard similar observations in many of the countries where the book has been translated.
“I did interviews in China and they said it’s so recognisable because we have the same here. There are these rich kids of party functionaries who feel superior and have contempt for homeless people and would drive over them in the street.”
Parental guilt and fear is also a universal theme and one that Koch is personally familiar with. “When I started to write this book my son was 11 and this is the sort of thing you worry about — what are our kids up to, what are they doing, how far we should respect their privacy?
“You always think my kids would never do that, but there is always a part you don’t know. I knew cases of people who had good relationships with their kids and then they turned out to be violent hooligans. Their parents knew nothing about their double lives.”
In the book, Paul carries the added burden of feeling something in his DNA may be responsible for his son’s actions but he should perhaps be looking to his own behaviour rather than to genetics for answers.
Koch’s own theory is that without war or other calamity to absorb the more destructive energies of youth, the young men of peaceful, developed nations may seek outlets elsewhere.
“I was watching the London riots on CNN last year and the comments were that these young people must be really desperate and living in very poor circumstances but I think in fact it was more like, it’s fun to make a riot.
“It’s fun to set fire to a building — a building in flames can be a wonderful sight. It’s chasing adrenaline. It’s looking for danger. So now it’s a building on fire and next it’s a person trapped in a burning building and it all gets out of control and out of control is fun. Of course it’s not, it’s terrible but I think it might be what is in the minds of these young people.”
The incident at the heart of The Dinner is based on a real-life killing in Spain but is also influenced by the reaction of the author himself when he encountered two homeless people sleeping in an ATM kiosk where he wanted to withdraw cash.
“The first emotion was annoyance. Of course you wouldn’t do them any harm but you still think, why do you have to sleep here?
“When you see really poor people in Africa, you don’t feel contempt. You just think they are very unlucky and we should help them [as the character Serge has]. But when you see someone sleeping in a bank machine in a modern society with a social safety net, you react differently. You have double standards.”
As well as double standards, The Dinner also features double-crossing, dual loyalties and the two sides to the elusive institution that is the happy family, the preservation of which is Paul’s primary concern.
Must a family overcome the failings of its members to be happy, or simply ignore them? Are secrets and lies within families necessary for survival? Despite the present day setting, The Dinner could have taken place in just about any era.
Happily for Koch, The Dinner has been a massive success and his next, Summer House With Swimming Pool, is also soon to be released in English.
“It’s also a family novel,” Koch says. “This time about a family with two daughters. I can’t just upset parents with sons. I have to upset everyone equally.”
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