Title: The Dinner.
Author: Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett).
Genre: Fiction, mystery, thriller.
Publication Date: 2009.
Summary: It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two brothers and their wives meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened. Each couple has a 15-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act—an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. And as civility and friendship disintegrate, and years' worth of frustrations, resentments, and hatreds come to the surface, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.
My rating: 8/10
♥ If I had to give a definition of happiness, it would be this: happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn't have to be validated. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is the opening sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All I could hope to add to that is that unhappy families—and within those families, in particular the unhappy husband and wife—can never get by on their own. The more validators, the merrier. Unhappiness loves company. Unhappiness can't stand silence—especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.
♥ Claire is smarter than I am. I'm not saying that out of some half-baked feminist sentiment or in order to endear women to me. You'll never hear me claim that "women in general" are smarter than men. Or more sensitive, more intuitive, that they are more "in touch with life" or any of the other horseshit that, when all is said and done, so-called sensitive men try to peddle more often than women themselves.
Claire just happens to be smarter than I am; I can honestly say that it took me a while to admit that. During our first years together, I thought she was intelligent, I guess, but intelligent in the usual sense: precisely as intelligent, in fact, as you might expect my wife to be. After all, would I settle for stupid woman for any longer than a month? In any case, Claire was intelligent enough for me to stay with her even after the first month. And now, almost twenty years later, that hasn't changed.
♥ That's the oppressive thing about happiness, the way everything is out on the table like an open book: if I avoided looking at her any longer, she'd know for sure something was going on—with girls, or worse.
♥ 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 that 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.
♥ ...as it turned out, none of us had the slightest idea what we'd been talking about before the appetizers arrived. That was one of the disadvantages of these so-called top restaurants: all the interruptions, like the exaggeratedly detailed review of every pine nut on your plate, the endless uncorking of wine bottles, and the unsolicited topping up of glasses made you lose track.
As far as that continual topping-up goes, let me say this: I have traveled a bit, I have been to restaurants in many countries, but nowhere, I literally mean nowhere—do they top up your wine without your asking for it. They would consider that rude. Only in Holland do they come up to your table all the time; not only do they top up your glass, but they also cast a wistful eye at the bottle when it seems to be getting empty. "Isn't it about time to order another one?" is what those looks are meant to say. I know someone, an old friend, who spent a few years working in Dutch "top restaurants." Their tactic, he told me once, is to actually force as much wine as possible down your throat, wine they sell for seven times what the importer charges for it, and that's why they always wait so long between bringing the appetizer and taking orders for the entrée: people will order more wine out of pure boredom, just to kill time—that's the way they figure it. The appetizer usually arrives quite quickly, my friend said, because of the appetizer takes too long, people start complaining. They start to doubt their choice of restaurant, but after a while, when they've had too much drink between appetizer and entrée, they lose track of time. He knew of cases where the entrées had been ready for a long time but remained on the plates in the kitchen because the people at the table in question weren't complaining. Only when there was a full in the conversation and the customers began to look around impatiently were the plates shoves into the microwave.
♥ Serge's girlfriends had usually given up on him after a few months. There was a boring, matter-of-fact side to that attractiveness—they soon tired of his "pretty face." Babette was the only one who had stuck it out with him, about eighteen years now, which in itself was something of a miracle. They had been squabbling for eighteen years, and it was pretty clear that they didn't really suit each other at all, but you often see that—couples for whom constant friction is the real engine of their marriage, every fight the foreplay to the moment when they can make up in bed.
But sometimes I couldn't help but think that it was all much simpler than that, that Babette had merely signed up for something, for a life at the side of a successful politician, and that it would have been a waste of all the time she'd invested to stop now—the way you don't put aside a bad book when you're halfway through it. You finish it reluctantly—that's the way she'd stayed with Serge. Perhaps the ending would make up for some of it.
♥ No, that was completely the wrong tone. I had no desire to be that kind of easygoing, fun-to-be-around dad: a father who's allowed to poke around in his son's cell phone because father and son, after all, "have nothing to hide from each other." I was already so grateful that Michel still called me "Dad" and not "Paul." There was something about that first-name-basis business that had always appalled me: children of seven who called their father "George" or their mother "Wilma." It was freeness and easiness of the wrong sort, and at the end of the day it always backfired on the all-too-free-and-easy parents. It was only a small step from "George" and "Wilma" to "But I said I wanted peanut butter, didn't I, George?" After which the sandwich with chocolate sprinkles is sent back to the kitchen and disappears into the garbage.
I've seen them often enough in my own surroundings, parents who laugh rather sheepishly when their children speak to them in that tone of voice. "Oh, you know, these days they hit adolescence a lot earlier" is how they try to smooth it over, but they are too shortsighted, or simply too cowardly, to realize that they have called this reign of terror down upon themselves. In their heart of hearts, of course, what they hope is that their children will go on liking them for longer as George and Wilma than they would as Dad and Mom.
A father who looked at the contents of his fifteen-year-old son's cell phone was getting too close. He could see right away how many girls were in the contacts, or which raunchy photos had been downloaded as screen wallpaper. No, my son and I did have things to hide: We respected each other's privacy. We knocked on the door of the other's room when it was closed. And we did not, for example, walk in and out of the bathroom naked without towels around our waists simply because there was nothing to hide, as was common in George-and-Wilma families—no, not that, not at all!
♥ "Michel, wait a minute," I said. We need to talk, that other father would have said, the father I was not.
♥ "Hitler had his sights set on Stalingrad," I said. "Even though, strategically speaking, it would have been wiser for him to press straight on to Moscow. But for him it was all about the name of the town: Stalingrad, the city that bore the name of his great opponent, Joseph Stalin. That city had to be conquered first. Because of the psychological impact that victory would have on Stalin. ... It's on the basis of irrational considerations like that that wars are won," I said. "Or lost."
♥ "What I remember most about my own high school history classes are the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans," I said. "Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, the Trojan Horse, the elephants marching across the Alps, the sea battles, the gladiatorial contests, the chariot races, the spectacular murders and suicides, the eruption of Vesuvius. But on the other hand, also the beauty, the beauty of all those temples and arenas and amphitheaters, the frescoes, the baths, the mosaics. That's the kind of beauty that lasts forever."
♥ Exactly what I said to that girl doesn't matter here—let me be clear about that. It would only distract us from the real issue. It would add nothing. Sometimes things come out of your mouth that you regret later on. Or no, not regret. You say something so razor-sharp that the person you say it to carries it around with them for the rest of their life.
♥ I looked at the principal. I smiled.
"Could I ask you a personal question?" he asked. "I thought, perhaps there's something... I mean, I'm only asking. How are things at home, Paul? Is everything all right at home?"
At home. I kept smiling, but I was thinking about Michel the whole time. Michel was almost four. In the Netherlands, for beating to death a fellow human, you might receive eight years, I figured. It wasn't much. With a little good behavior, a little raking around the prison grounds, you would be out the gates within five. Michel would be nine by then.
"How are things with your wife... with Carla?"
Claire, I corrected the principal soundlessly. Her name is Claire.
"Wonderful," I said.
"And the kids? How are they?"
The kids. Even that was too much for this asshole to remember! It was impossible to remember everything about everyone, of course. That the French teacher lived with her girlfriend was an exception. Because it stood out. But all the others? The others did not stand out. They all had a husband or a wife and children. Or no children. Or only one child. Michel's bike still had training wheels. If I were in prison, I wouldn't get to see the moment when the training wheels were taken off. Only hear about it.
"Great," I said. "Sometimes it's amazing how quickly it all goes. How quickly they grow up."
The principal folded his hands and placed them on his desktop, ignorant of the fact that he had just crept through the eye of the needle.
For Michel. For Michel, I would keep my hands to myself.
♥ I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up. The café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that's too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air; documentaries about tornados, hurricanes, and tsunamis have a soothing effect. Of course it's terrible—we've all been taught to say that we think it's terrible. But a world without disasters and violence—be it the violence of nature or that of muscle and blood—would be the truly unbearable thing.
♥ The psychologist had mentioned a name. A German-sounding name. It was the surname of the neurologist who'd had this particular disorder named after him.
"With therapy, I can influence it a little," Van Dieren had said, looking at me earnestly, "but you should see it primarily as a neurological matter. With the right medication, it can be kept under control quite effectively. ... That is to say: these days, it's quite possible to identify defects like that before birth. With a pregnancy test or amniocentesis. Of course, you have to be aware of what you're getting into. Terminating a pregnancy is no trifling matter."
...It had already become an illness, I noted. We had started with a defect and then, by way of a disorder and a syndrome, ended up with an illness.
"But in any case, it's reason enough for an abortion," I said. "Even without further testing?"
"Listen. With Down's syndrome, for example, or what they call spina bifida, we can see clear signs in the amniotic fluid. In those cases, we always advise the parents to terminate the pregnancy. With this illness, though, we find ourselves in a gray area. But we always warn the parents. In actual practice, most people decide not to run the risk."
..."Were there amniotic fluid tests thirty years ago?" I asked instead.
The school psychologist thought about it for a moment. "I don't believe so. No, now that you mention it. In fact, I'm a hundred percent sure. That was definitely not something they did back then, no."
We looked at each other. At that moment, I was also hundred percent sure that Van Dieren and I were thinking the same thing.
But he didn't say it. He probably didn't dare to say it, so I said it for him.
"In other words, the inadequate state of medical science forty years ago is the only reason I'm sitting here across from you today?" I said. "That I'm here at all," I added. It was a superfluous thing to add, but I felt like hearing it from my own mouth.
Van Dieren nodded slowly. A smile of amusement appeared on his face.
"If you put it that way," he said. "Had this test been available back then, it's not entirely unimaginable that your parents would have decided to be safe rather than sorry."
♥ It was on a Sunday afternoon, about five days after I had gulped down the first pills. I was lying on the couch in the living room with the big, fat Saturday newspaper on my lap. Through the sliding glass doors I looked out at the garden, where it had just started to rain. It was one of those days of fluffy white clouds and patches of blue in between. The wind was blowing hard. I should mention right away that for the last few months, my own house, my own living room, and along with it, above all, my own presence in that house and in that living room had often frightened me. The fear was directly connected to the existence of so many other people in similar houses and living rooms. Especially in the evening, after dark, when most people were "at home," this fear would quickly take over. From where I lay on the couch I could see, through the bushes and trees, the light from windows across the street. I rarely saw actual people, but those lit windows betrayed their presence—just as my own lit window betrayed my presence. I don't want to give the wrong impression: I wasn't afraid of people themselves, of people as a species. I don't suffer from panic attacks in big crowds, and I'm also not the antisocial guest at parties, the loner no one wants to talk to, whose body language itself announces nothing more loudly than his desire to be left alone. No, it's something else. It had to do with the provisional status of all those people in their living rooms, in their houses, their housing blocks, their neatly laid-out neighborhoods of streets, each of which directly leads to another, each square connected by streets to the next square.
That was how I sometimes lay on the couch in our living room in the evening and thought about things. Something in me whispered that I needed to stop thinking, that I should above all not go too far with thinking. But that never worked. I always thought things through to the end, to their most extreme consequence. At this exact moment, I thought, there are people everywhere, lying on couches in living rooms like this one. Later on, they will go to bed. They'll toss and turn a bit, or say something nice to each other, or remain stubbornly silent because they've just had an argument and neither of them wants to be the first to admit he was wrong. Then the light goes out. I thought about time—the passing of time, to be precise—how vast, how endless, how long and dark and empty one hour can be. Anyone who thinks like that has no need to think about the infinity of space. I thought about the sheer quantity of people, their numbers, not even in terms of overpopulation, or pollution, or whether in the future there would be enough for everyone to eat, but strictly about the quantity itself. About whether three million or six billion served any given purpose. Once I had arrived at this point, the first feelings of discomfort would appear. It isn't that there are too many people, not per se, I would think to myself, but there are an awful lot of them. I thought about the students in my classroom. They all had to do something: they had to make a start in life; they had to go through life. Even though a single hour can be so long. They had to find jobs and for couples. Children would come, and those children too would sit through history classes at school, although no longer taught by me. From a certain vantage point, you could see only the presence of people, not the people themselves anymore. That was when I would start to panic. From the outside, you wouldn't have noticed much of anything, except that the newspaper was still lying unread on my lap.
♥ That's a word that was used a few times by friends and family and acquaintances and colleagues when they called. "Is it life threatening?" they asked. They said it slightly sotto voce, but you could hear the thirst for sensation right through it: when people get a chance to come close to death without having it touch them personally, they never miss the opportunity.
♥ In all domestic arguments—as in all fistfights and armed conflicts, for that matter—there comes a moment when both, or one, of the parties can step back and prevent the situation from deteriorating any further.
♥ The meaningful looks the government leasers would exchange. "He's from Holland," they would say—or perhaps only think to themselves, which was even worse. That sense of vicarious shame was a constant. Our being ashamed of our prime ministers was the only feeling that created a seamless connection between one Dutch administration and the next.
♥ My son. Michel. I had thought about a future, without stopping to ask myself if there would be one.
♥ I never wear a watch. Ever since they put me on nonactive, I've tried to live by the position of the sun, the rotation of the earth, the intensity of the daylight.
♥ I looked into Claire's eyes, the eyes of the woman who represented happiness to me. Without my wife I would have been nowhere; you hear sentimental men say that sometimes—"helpless" is what they often call themselves. And indeed, all they mean is that their wives have been there to clean up after them all their lives and have kept bringing them cups of coffee at every hour of the day. I wouldn't go that far: without Claire I wouldn't have been nowhere, but I would have been somewhere else.
...Throughout my little speech, Claire kept her eyes on me. The look and the smile she gave me now were part of our happiness. It was a happiness that could survive a lot, that outsiders couldn't come between so easily.
♥ Perhaps he didn't eat the flesh of mammals and was anti-American or, in any case, anti-Bush: the latter stance gave people carte blanche not to think about anything anymore. Anyone who was against Bush had his heart in the right place and could behave like a boorish asshole toward anyone around him.
♥ The dilemma I was faced with was one every parent faces sooner or later: you want to defend your child, of course; you stand up for your child, but you must't do it all too vehemently, and above all not too eloquently—you mustn't drive anyone into a corner. The educators, the teachers, will let you have your say, but afterwards they'll take revenge on your child. You may come up with better arguments—it's not too hard to come up with better arguments than the educators, the teachers—but in the end, your child is going to pay for it. Their frustration at being shown up is something they'll take out on the student.
♥ When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.
♥ But no one at the table spoke a word. Sometimes people allow silences like that to fall—when they don't feel like saying the obvious.
♥ I looked into my wife's eyes. She had just asked me to break my brother's arm. Or damage his face. And all that out of love, love for our son. For Michel. I had to think about that mother, years ago in Germany, who had shot and killed her child's murderer in the courtroom. That's the kind of mother Claire was.
♥ "But, suddenly, I saw my old Paul again. And then I knew: I wanted my old Paul back. Including the Paul who kicks his own desk drawers to bits. And that other time, when that scooter cut you off on the road. When you took off after it..."
And that time you battered Michel's principal into the hospital, I thought Claire would say then. But she didn't. She said something else.
"That was the Paul I loved... that I love. That's the Paul I love. More than anything or anyone else in the world."