The Dinner (Het Diner)by Herman Koch (2009) is one of the most hyped Dutch novels in recent years. Not only has it been translated into 33 different languages - more than any other Dutch book ever - it will also end up being made into two major movies. The first one, a Dutch version directed by Menno Meyjes, just premiered at the Toronto film festival, and the second version, in English, will be Cate Blanchett's directorial debut.
I was planning to read this book in Dutch, but the waiting list at my local library was very long (another attest to the book's popularity) and then my mother sent me a copy of the English translation. So I ended up reading it in English. (Thanks, Mom!)
"Four people. One dinner. An unavoidable decision. The story of a father wanting the best for his child unfolds like a tightly directed family drama with black edges, in which at every turn a little more of the underlying reality is revealed. How far will the father go to protect his son after he finds out what terrible thing the boy has done? Far, is the answer.
In the most congenial of settings, a sumptuous dinner for two brothers and their wives at a fashionable establishment in the capital, knives are sharpened. They are meeting to discuss what to do about their fifteen-year-old sons, partners in crime. During the diner the dissatisfactions and frustrations that have smouldered for years rise to the surface. Paul Lohman, a history teacher who’s taken early retirement, is full of aggression, both towards the restaurant with its pretentious food and service, and towards his brother, Serge Lohman, the popular politician whose ambition is to become prime minister of the Netherlands in the forthcoming elections.
Comforting and loyal as Paul’s wife initially seems, her true role in this horrifying story turns out in the end to be one of treachery. Brother Serge and his wife have a hidden agenda too. After this dinner – you can hear the film music swell – nothing will ever be the same again. Het diner (The Dinner) is a portrayal of modern mores, exploring a contemporary moral dilemma about honesty and dirty tricks. Koch distills this dilemma into the question of how far, as a parent, you open your eyes to the actions of your child and call him to account. The drama cuts close to the bone."
This is one of those books where important elements are slowly and strategically revealed to the reader, and leave you shocked and not sure what to believe at the end. It was definitely original, it gives you a good feel for modern life in the Netherlands, and it is a quick read. However, it was difficult to have any empathy for any of the characters, as they all make incredibly poor, selfish, and in some cases, downright evil choices. It will be interesting to see who Cate Blanchett casts for the roles!
My oldest son is a huge Murakami fan. So of course I treated him to the English translation of the three volumes of 1Q84 when it came out. And of course, ever since, I've been eyeballing the dark, thick book on his bookshelf every time I drop off a pile of clean clothes to his room. With its 925 pages I thought it would be a perfect book for several long slow months of reading, and so I decided to tackle it this summer.
Having read two other Murakami novels, I was prepared for the his unique way of skewing reality and
expected a completely unexpected story line peopled by quirky characters who live somewhat marginal lives. I was also looking forward to the way he peppers his books with the most diverse references to music, literature and popular culture. What I also expected and enjoy most about reading Murakami, however, is the little window it gives me into life in Japan: the way he describes the foods they eat and how they prepare them, their homes, public transport, the way people interact with each other, the educational system, and life in general. I have no idea, of course, if the way he writes about these things actually corresponds to how they really are, but his matter-of-factness in describing them rings true somehow, even when his characters are going through the most fantastical experiences at the same time.
1Q84 tells the strange story of Aomame and Tengo as they get caught up in events in a world that is parallel to the real world of Tokyo in 1984. Aomame is a lonely young woman who works as a fitness instructor at a gym but also a hit woman for a mysterious organization. Tengo, an equally solitary young man, teaches math at a Tokyo "cram school" and is an aspiring novelist who gets caught up in rewriting a young girl's strange submission for a literary prize. At first there seems to be no connection between Aomame and Tengo's lives, and their alternating chapters seem to be two separate novels, intertwined. But Murakami has used this technique in previous work (see my blog post on one of his other books) and as the reader senses intuitively, Aomame and Tengo become increasingly important to one another. (For a very detailed plot summary and list of all the characters, click here.)
Book 1 and 2 are gripping and fast paced, and peopled with several interesting characters. It is also in the first two books that the reader is exposed to the fascinating properties of the parallel world, as well as the life stories of Aomame and Tengo. Book 3 is slower and somewhat repetitive, doesn't really add any new elements to the story, and we learn nothing more of some of the more intriguing and important side characters - they seem to just vanish into thin air. But after already investing myself in the first two thirds of the trilogy, I was highly motivated to get to the end and find out what happened to Aomame and Tengo. Because, despite the fantastical twists and turns of the plot and the utter strangeness of the world they inhabit, Murakami is able to make us care about his characters.