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I ACTUALLY find it difficult to write about likeable characters,” says Dutch author Herman Koch, “because really, they can be quite boring.”
Herman Koch is the author of The Dinner, the phenomenal international best-seller which was first translated into English in 2012. A novel that begins with pleasant, sophisticated adults sitting around a restaurant dinner-table, it gradually strips away the veneer of its characters’ civilised society to reveal nasty and brutish behaviour.
“Unlikeable characters,” says Herman, “are generally more interesting and more colourful. It’s the reason, I think, why we like gangster movies, or The Sopranos, for example. These people might be murderers, but they’re interesting.
“We can even sympathise with them in some ways. So that’s the kind of thing I like to explore. I always have some likeable people in my books,” he laughs, “but they’re usually minor characters.”
His seventh novel — he has also published seven collections of short stories — Summer House With Swimming Pool is Herman Koch’s follow-up to The Dinner, and has for its narrator another fascinatingly dislikeable character, Marc Schlosser. A doctor for the past 25 years, Marc has grown so bored with his patients’ complaints that he is now utterly indifferent to their pain and suffering.
“He’s doing very routine work,” says Herman, “not like what a surgeon might do. And I think the status of the doctor in general has diminished a lot in the last 150 or 200 years, and Marc is having problems with that as well, having patients who are well-known, artistic people — actors, writers — who look down on him. So he feels like somebody who is just being used, and this is where his frustration comes from. And with frustration, in the end — not with everybody, but with Marc — comes disgust.”
Compounding Marc’s disgust for his own and others’ failings is his contempt for humans who try to ignore their animal instincts.
“I was thinking that we tend, sometimes, when we have our struggles and movements, our campaigns for equal rights for everybody, we forget our biological aspect, and that even the biological aspect now is sometimes a taboo, that it is not politically correct,” says Herman.
“In the end, human beings differ from animals because the animal just thinks, ‘Well, now I have to eat, now I have to procreate.’ Or they’re not even conscious that they’re procreating. We as humans are conscious of that, certainly. But maybe in the way we look at each other, in the way a man looks at a woman, it can still be an animal-like look.”
The story turns not on animal instincts, but a very human sexual deviance, as Marc comes to realise that his 13-year-old daughter Julia is the focus of an adult male’s obsession.
“When I started the book, I didn’t know how the story would end,” says Herman. “But while I was writing it, Roman Polanski got arrested again, for this case from the 1970s.”
In 1977, film director Roman Polanski was arrested in California for the rape of a 13-year-old girl, and subsequently pled guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor. “That’s why I put this film director [the Dutch-born Hollywood director Stanley Forbes] into the novel,” says Herman, “and why his girlfriend is called Emmanuelle, like the wife of Roman Polanski. I thought I would expose all the different facets of a story about a 13-year-old girl who in the eyes of her father is still a small girl, and a 13-year-old girl who herself thinks she is already a woman. It’s to do with a father whose girl is growing up, and what he might do to try to protect her.”
As was the case with The Dinner, Summer House With Swimming Pool first offers the reader a cast of characters who appear to be sophisticated, tolerant and intelligent. Once Marc Schlosser begins scratching at the surface, however, glimpses of much cruder, illiberal and immoral characters quickly appear. It’s a snapshot, says Herman, of a far larger issue confronting Holland today.
“I think that what I see sometimes in the Dutch is that they congratulate themselves — or they were congratulating themselves — about their tolerance. You know, we’re so tolerant because we accept people from every part of the world. But there’s also another side to that. The idea of tolerance, I think, comes out of feeling superior. What I feel is that you don’t have the right to say, ‘I tolerate this man from Africa or the Middle East.’ Because why should you? Is he tolerating you? The only way you are superior to this man is in numbers. You can say, ‘Oh, I will tolerate this other guy or this woman, but of course the culture is very primitive. But we can help.’ And then this whole ‘helping’ thing — sometimes an immigrant is not looking for help.
He’s just looking for some kind of respect.
“Lately, in Holland, with all the discussions of culture and religion, it suddenly came out that the Dutch are now voting for this right-wing, anti-foreigner party,” he continues. “The Dutch are saying, ‘Oh, we did all we could, and they’re not even grateful. So now we will tear off this mask of tolerance.’ But I think, deep inside, they were never that liberal at all.”
In some ways, Herman Koch’s journey as a writer has been the reverse of the Dutch experience. Initially intolerant of all forms of authority, he has grown comfortable with becoming a figure of influence.
“When you start as a writer, you start as a more rebellious person, more against teachers and adults, your family,” he says. “And then afterwards you become a father yourself, you have your own family, so your perspective changes a lot.
“You’re no longer this adolescent revolutionary,” he laughs. “You’re more trying to protect what you have. I knew I had to grow up, and as a writer use this experience of being an adult with my own family.”
A film of The Dinner has already been made in Holland, with a Hollywood version to come starring Cate Blanchett, although Herman — previously an actor and screenwriter himself — has chosen not to be involved in the adaptation. “I think it’s better that the director is completely free to tell the story,” he says.
Does he have a theory as to why The Dinner was such a tremendous international success? “Of course I’ve asked myself that question, because you can have a success in your own country — but then, just because it’s a success in your own country, can it hold the attention of people in other countries?” He shrugs. “I don’t know.
“It’s a combination of things. Certainly The Dinner touched some sore spot to do with protecting children, but I also think it has to do with going against political correctness. People might say, ‘I’m not allowed to say this aloud, but I can think it at least.’
“And when they read that kind of thing, it confirms that there is somebody who also thinks it — maybe the hero, maybe the writer — and that the thought isn’t forbidden. And that might also be a cathartic thing, a liberating experience.”
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