Thoughts: The Dinner, by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

We saw the film of this at Sneak, and because it was in 2017 I only had a vague impression of bitchy people having dinner who didn’t like each other. I also remember even at the time wondering whether the book would be as good as I’d heard, the author underrated in the English-speaking world but respected in the Netherlands.

You know what? Somehow he pulled it off.

In a strong contrast to Tree of Smoke, far-ranging and sprawling over distance and time, The Dinner is set during one evening’s restaurant dinner, divided by course. Of course we get glimpses of the past and hints of the future in between, and by the end we have a pretty solid image of a network of lives, but the action all centres around this one evening.

It’s quite twisty and intense, and the way it slowly draws you in is really well done. I started off thinking I had Paul the narrator’s number straight away – thinks he’s the smartest in the room, jealous, overthinky – and then he gives himself away, bit by bit, revealing more of himself and shining more of a light on how his dynamics with other characters have affected our views of them as well. He uses vagueness well, hiding the names of institutions, politicians, even diseases. It could be annoying or feel cheap, but somehow it works. Because Paul feels like he is trying to hide things for whatever reason.

I had a small but recurring nitpick with the translation. For the most part it succeeds in feeling neutral and avoids the stilted translatorese you get with a mix of plain/idiomatic language, you know the type. But I kept being jarred by very American terms like “get the check”, “off of”, “elementary school”, while there were also things like “mum” and British/Commonwealth spelling (with the -ize convention you sometimes see allowed). I don’t know why? As the Netherlands is a Western European country, I would have thought British English conventions would make more sense atmospherically (though of course you can never have a 1:1 matchup between countries/languages), but honestly the see-sawing between them was distracting. I don’t know if this is because I’m a chippy Brit or because I’m a translator or whether a “normal” person would notice it at all? But anyway, I write these for myself, so remarked upon it shall go.

I don’t want to say too much about it, because it’s a fun, black-hearted little novel that you should be able to enjoy unburdened by my clumsy synopsising. The conflict at its heart is interesting without being A Debate Theme – suffice it to say that parenting is involved, nature v nurture is touched upon, hypocrisy, reputation, that sort of thing – and I enjoyed the exploration without really thinking “what would I do?” It felt like no one was agonising too much about what they would do, only how they would get done what they knew they wanted to be done. If that makes sense.

Anyway, yeah, liked this one more than I thought I would.

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