The Dinner (2009) by Herman Koch is about a sociopath. But you wouldn’t know that at first. As I read, I thought, “Oh, here is a nice man named Paul having dinner with his annoying and famous brother Serge. Yes, his attitude is a little hostile, but his brother’s a jerk, right?”
Well, that is true. His brother is a famous politician running for prime minster in the Netherlands, where the novel is set. But Paul also happens to be a sociopath. What is captivating about this novel is that we don’t know it at first, but as the narrative unfolds, from Paul’s perspective, we realize by degrees that he is unreliable and that he’s also an awful and enabling person. His son is involved in some terrible crimes, along with his cousin, Serge’s son, but the two sets of parents have covered it up and are meeting for dinner to discuss the situation further, especially as it pertains to Serge’s political campaign.
I don’t want to give too much away, in case you’d like to read this one. I know it has been making the rounds and seems pretty popular right now, as the English translation of it has just come out. I will say that I liked the structure of the novel. It follows the courses of the fancy dinner that Paul, Serge and their wives, Claire and Babette, respectively, are eating. The action of the novel occurs during this dinner, although Paul does recount memories of incidents, usually his own violence, during the episodes of dinner.
In the end, there is a shocking turn of events, including that Paul’s wife Claire may also be somewhat violent. She seems in control and so normal and nice during the dinner, but Paul from the outset describes her as more intelligent than he. After finding out Claire’s true capabilities, whether those came as instinct from being a mother or from selfish desires, I suspect she may be a sociopath, too. It is as if their entire family are sociopaths, and some of Paul’s own medical diagnoses and fears about genetics play into this suspicion.
Additionally, Paul has racist and classist ideas about genetics. He remembers losing his job as a history teacher for suggesting that some of the millions of people killed during the Holocaust may have deserved it or that the world is likely better without them. (Warning: this quote has a bit of strong language.) He says, “In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? . . . Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horse-shit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude” (p. 176). He has no concept of the value of human life, even those souls that may be more precious to God than they are to everybody else. He sees certain people as expendable, and as the narrative progresses, we see that he uses this frame in favor of himself and his family.
There are several remembered incidents of violence. As these are revealed, we realize that Paul is not normal and that the story he’s telling us may be skewed in his favor, although the more he speaks the less we can trust him. Here’s the line that stood out to me because it revealed his true character: “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” (p. 259). From this, we learn that he is a liar and that he thinks everybody is of lower intelligence, except his wife, who we soon realize loves him for his violent and sociopathic tendencies.
When he finally begins to reveal what his son has been up to, it becomes clear that the father and son share some tendency for violence. But all Paul can admit is this: “If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, then it had to be our shared aversion to sweet desserts” (p. 221).
The overarching premise of the book is from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the first line in fact. That “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (p. 6). Paul is stuck on this idea and uses the rest of the book to try to convince us and himself that they are happy. They are happy in a strange and twisted way, which may turn Tolstoy’s idea on its head.
However, can sociopaths be happy?