There’s an idea that in order to appeal to modern society something has to be quick and action packed. Books must be stripped down until they have the pace and appearance of movie scripts, movies must have enough explosions to make a good trailer but not much in the way of plot or character and that songs, no more than three minutes long, must be at least two thirds chorus.
What chance then does Herman Koch’s stand? His novel, The Dinner, was first published in Holland in 2009. The book has been translated into English only this year, perhaps because nobody thought it would appeal to the Anglophone market. After all, the entire story takes place over the course of a single evening, whilst two brothers eat dinner.
Koch’s plot is intricate, delicate even, but in fact it is the main character, Paul Lohman, through whose eyes the story takes place, that really draws the reader in. The author can have his, frankly unbalanced, protagonist rant for pages and go into immense detail about why he hates the way a waiter holds his fingers, and not once does it become tedious.
You could say that Paul Lohman casts a spell over the audience in the same way as Basil Fawlty or Edmund Blackadder. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant man, one who in real life would drive you to distraction almost immediately.
But from a safe distance, Lohman’s rants about everything, the restaurant, the staff, even his brother Serge, the Dutch Prime Minister elect, are intriguing in their bigotry, compelling in their arrogance.
This is Mr. Koch’s triumph. He’s created a character with a point of view so uniquely self serving and biased, without ever becoming unbelievable, that you can’t help but listen when he speaks. The author could have filled three hundred pages whilst only having Paul and Serge meet up for a quick chat. As it is the brothers have come together because their sons have done something unspeakable, and Koch takes his readers with him to discover just how far these men will go to protect the ones they love…