Something is inherently wrong with Paul Lohman; it’s evident from the very beginning of Herman Koch’s The Dinner. The Dinner is a novel with a sampling of themes delivered through a five-part story structure named after five courses of a meal at a posh restaurant. The story takes place during a dinner between two couples; Paul, the narrator of this novel, and his wife, Claire, and Serge and his wife, Babette. Serge is Paul’s older and more successful brother who is about to run for Prime Minister of the Netherlands. The reader immediately picks up on the fact that Paul is peculiar and are fed clues as to Paul’s recent past, and his relationships, particularly with his son, Michel, with Claire, and with two of Serge’s children, Rick and his adopted African son, Beau.
There are subtle references to politics and social status, such as Paul insinuates that Serge and Babette only adopt Beau to make them look good for when Serge runs for Prime Minister. And of racism; Paul doesn’t like Beau, though the reader is unsure if it’s due to skin color or if there’s something sinister about the kid.
Half-way through the book, we are told about an event documented via security camera and Youtube involving Michel and Serge’s biological son, Rick. It’s clear that Paul is deeply disturbed, has lost his teaching job and has to be medicated. We also learn that he has an “illness” which is hinted at but not named which carries a marker that can be determined through an amniocentesis test during pregnancy. We also discover that Paul’s son Michel most likely inherited the same illness.
Another presented theme is class systems intermingled with a moral code. Koch assumes everyone has a specific code they live by, one built around where they fit in the hierarchy of society, but then asks would we change that system to protect our loved ones?
The end of The Dinner, are the two final themes and the character’s answers to them: Nature VS Nurture—are we monsters because we’re born this way or are we monsters because we’re taught to be? Here’s where the twist of the book comes in, that it’s the last one suspected who is the scariest one of the family. The last theme asks if given information that something may be abnormal with an unborn baby, would we still have it? The ending of The Dinner is ambiguous which ratchets up each theme, forcing the reader to decide what their moral creed is and what would they do if a situation presented itself?
This Novel is a fascinating and contemporary look at the world. Peppered with black humor and ghastly insight it’s approximately 300 pages that you won’t be able to put down.