Likely Stories: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Jun 22, 2017

Two brothers and their wives meet for a dinner to discuss the behavior of two of their children.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

The information on the dust jacket of The Dinner by Herman Koch intrigued me, so I decided to move it up a few notches.  This is his seventh novel, along with three collections of short stories.  This internationally known writer from Amsterdam is almost unknown in America.  The story is thrilling, and his prose will catapult the reader to the end.  I could hardly put it down.

Paul and Serge Lohman are brothers, both are married and both have a fifteen-year-old son.  Serge also has two other children.  He is a politician, and he is headed to the office of Speaker of Parliament in The Netherlands.  Paul has major anger issues, and he fantasizes about beating someone to death.  The dust jack mentions the brothers are entangled in a horrific event involving their boys, or are they?

Paul is misanthropic to say the list.  The couples meet for dinner at a ritzy restaurant.  Paul harbors lots of resentment over his brother’s success.  Koch writes, “What I was in fact planning to do was look at the prices of the entrées: the prices in restaurants like this always fascinate me.  Let me make it clear right away that I’m not stingy by nature; that has nothing to do with it.  I’m also not going to claim money is no object, but I’m light years removed from people who say it’s a ‘waste of money’ to eat in a restaurant while ‘at home you can make things that are so much nicer.’  No, people like that don’t understand anything, not about food and not about restaurants” (25).  The novel drips with sarcasm, snarky remarks, and hidden grudges.

All four of the adults know about the horrific event, but none of the four knows what the others know.  Clair, Paul’s, wife, knows more than the others.  Paul recalls his son kicking a ball through a glass window.  He takes the boy to apologize and pay for the window, but the bike shop owner is not satisfied.  Paul loses his temper, and picks up a bicycle pump to hit the man.  Later, Michel asks if he was really going to hit the man.  Koch writes, “I had already put the key in the lock, but now I squatted down in front of him again.  ‘Listen,’ I said.  ‘That man is not a good man.  That man is just a piece of trash who hates kids who are playing.  It doesn’t matter whether I would have hit him over the head with that pump.  Besides, if I had, he would only have had himself to blame.  No, what matters is that he thought I was going to hit him, and that was enough’” (139). 

The purpose of the dinner was for the adults to discuss the “incident” concerning their sons.  Serge offers to withdraw from the election, despite the fact he is way ahead in the polls and almost certain to win.  He has planned a press conference for the next day.  Serge’s wife, Babbette, does not want her husband to withdraw.  Clair and Babbette plot to stop the announcement.  The ending is surreal, almost dreamlike.  One body leaves the scene on a stretcher.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is a thrilling and suspenseful novel.  A perfect read for a sunny day, or a rainy day, or any day.  5 stars.