First Reads
9:41 am
Tue January 29, 2013

Exclusive First Read: 'The Dinner' By Herman Koch

Herman Koch's new novel The Dinner is a meal that may give you indigestion, but you'll relish the burn. The book begins with two couples meeting for dinner in a posh Amsterdam restaurant: Paul Lohman, the entertainingly bilious narrator, his brother Serge, a rising politician almost certain to become prime minister in the next election, and their wives. But the dinner conversation is grim, even shocking. Each couple has a teenage son, and the two boys have committed a ghastly crime — a crime that's been captured on grainy viral video. No one has yet identified the perpetrators in the video — except their parents, who've planned the dinner to talk about it. Scenes of the fateful dinner are interspersed with flashbacks; in this excerpt, Paul grumbles about a visit to his brother's summer home in France. The Dinner was an international hit when it came out in 2009. It will be released in the United States on Feb. 12.

Every year, Serge and Babette went to their house in the Dor­dogne with the children. They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is "great": from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they them­selves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films. At the same time, they failed to see that the local French population of the Dordogne fairly retched at the sight of Dutch people. Anti-Dutch slogans had been scrawled on the walls of many residences secondaires, but according to my brother, this was the work of "a tiny minority" — after all, wasn't everyone nice to you when you went to a shop or a restaurant?

"Uh ... that depends," Serge said. "It's still a bit up in the air."

We had visited them there for the first time a year ago, the three of us, on our way to Spain — the first time and the last, as Claire put it after we resumed our trip three days later. My brother and his wife had insisted so often that we drop by that it had become almost embarrassing to put it off any longer.

The house was in a lovely location, on a hill, tucked away amid the trees. Glinting in the distance through the branches, in the valley below, you could see a bend in the Dordogne River. It was muggy the whole time we were there, not a breath of wind. Huge beetles and blowflies, of a size never seen in the Netherlands, buzzed loudly amid the leaves, or flew against the windows with smacks so hard they made the glass rattle in its sashes.

We were introduced to the "mason" who had built the open kitchen for them, to the "Madame" who ran the bakery, and to the owner of a "completely ordinary little restaurant" along a tributary of the Dordogne, "where all the locals go." Serge introduced me to everyone as "mon petit frere." He seemed at ease among the French, each and every one of them just regular people, after all. Regular people were his specialty in Holland, so why not here as well?

What barely seemed to register with him was that those reg­ular people were earning large sums of money off him, off the Dutchman with his summer home and his money, and it was in part for that reason that they continued to exercise a modicum of courtesy. "So kind," Serge said. "So normal. Where would you find that in Holland these days?" He failed to notice, or maybe he just shut his eyes to it, how the "mason" hocked a green tendril of chewing tobacco onto their tiled patio after mention­ing the price of a shipment of authentic rural roofing tiles for the lean-to above their outdoor kitchen. How the "Madame" at the bakery actually wanted to go on serving her customers but stood waiting while Serge introduced his petit frere, and how those same customers exchanged knowing nods and winks — nods and winks that spoke volumes concerning the despicable boorishness of these Dutch people. How the jovial owner of the little restaurant squatted beside our table and said in a con­spiratorial tone that he had, that very day, received a bag of escargots from a local farmer who normally kept them for him­self. This time he had been able to buy some, though, and the owner wanted to offer them exclusively to Serge and his "lovely family" at a "special price" — the taste was something we would encounter nowhere else. Meanwhile, Serge overlooked the fact that the French customers were all handed the carte du jour, an inexpensive three-course menu at less than half the price of a single helping of snails. And concerning the wine tasting in that little restaurant, I prefer to say nothing at all.

We stayed for three days. During those three days we also visited a chateau, where we had to stand in line in front of a house with hundreds of other foreigners, mostly Dutch, be­fore being guided through twelve swelteringly hot rooms with old poster beds and tub chairs. The rest of the time we spent largely in the airless garden. Claire tried to do some reading. It was too hot for me to even open a book — the white of the pages hurt your eyes — but it was difficult to do nothing at all. Serge was always busy with something; there were things around the house he did himself, things for which he did not have a local craftsman at his beck and call. "The people here start to respect you when you work on your own house," he said. "You notice that after a while." And so he pushed his wheelbarrow forty times up and back between the outdoor kitchen and the provin­cial highway, where the rural roofing tiles had been dropped. It never occurred to him for a moment that his do-it-yourselfing might be cheating the local mason out of a considerable chunk of his paid working hours.

He sawed his own wood for the fireplace as well. Sometimes it looked almost like a publicity shot for his election campaign: Serge Lohman, the people's candidate, with a wheelbarrow, a saw, and burly blocks of wood — a regular man like any other, the only difference being that few regular men could afford a summer home in the Dordogne. Perhaps that was the real rea­son why he never allowed a camera crew onto his "property," as he referred to it. "This is my place," he himself said. "My place, for me and my family. It's no one else's business."

When he wasn't lugging roofing tiles or sawing wood, he was out picking blackberries or blueberries. Blackberries and blueberries from which Babette then made jam. With her hair up in a kerchief, she spent days ladling out hot, sickly-sweet substances into hundreds of canning jars. Claire had no choice but to ask if she needed help, just as I felt obliged to help Serge with his roofing tiles. "Can I give you a hand?" I asked after the seventh barrowful went by. "Well, now that you mention it" was his reply.

"When can we leave?" Claire asked me that night in bed, when we were finally alone and could cuddle up close. Not too close, though — it was too hot for that. The berries had turned her fingers blue; a darker version of the blue was in her hair and streaked across her cheeks.

"Tomorrow," I said. "Oh, no, I mean the day after tomorrow."

On our last night, Serge and Babette invited friends and acquaintances over for dinner in the garden. They were Dutch friends and acquaintances, all of them, and they all had sum­mer homes close by. "Nothing special," Serge said. "Just a little group of friends. Nice people, all of them, really."

Seventeen Dutch people, not counting the three of us, stood around the garden that evening with plates and glasses. There was an aging actress ("with no work and no husband," Claire filled me in the next morning) and a skinny choreographer who drank only Vittel water from half-liter bottles he had brought himself, and a pair of married homosexual writers who spent the whole evening carping at each other.

On the table, Babette had laid out a buffet of salads, French cheeses, cured meats, and bread. Meanwhile, Serge turned his attention to the barbecue; he was wearing a red-and-white­ check apron and grilling hamburgers and shish kebabs with bell peppers and onions. "The secret of a good barbecue is to build a good fire," he'd told me a few hours before the dinner with the little circle of friends. "The rest is a piece of cake." My job was to collect dry twigs. Serge was drinking more than usual — a wicker bottle of wine stood beside him in the grass next to the barbecue. Maybe he was more nervous about how the evening would go than he was letting on. "In Holland, they're all sitting down to potatoes and gravy right now," he said. "Can you imagine it? This is the life, man!" He waved his fork at the trees and bushes that kept the garden hidden from prying eyes.

All the Dutch people I spoke to that evening told more or less the same story, often in the very same words. They didn't envy their countrymen, who were forced, by financial consider­ations or other obligations, to stay behind in Holland. "Around here, we're as happy as God in France," said a woman, who told me she had worked for years in the "diet industry." I thought she was joking, until I realized that she had uttered the phrase entirely in earnest, as though she had come up with it herself.

I looked around at the other figures cradling their wine­glasses in the golden-yellow glow from the braziers and torches positioned strategically around the garden, and in my mind I heard the voice of the old actor who figured in that TV commercial ten — or was it twenty? — years ago: "Yes, that's right, you too can be happy as God in France. With a good glass of cognac and real French cheese ..."

The mere thought brought with it a whiff of Boursin, as though someone had spread a slice of toast with that filthiest of all fake French cheeses and shoved it under my nose. It was the combination of the lighting and the odor of Boursin that kept me from seeing my brother and sister-in-law's garden party as anything but an old, outdated TV commercial from twenty years ago or longer. As imitation cheese that had nothing whatsoever to do with French cheese, just like here, in the heart of the Dordogne, where everyone was only playing at being in France, while the French themselves were most conspicuous by their absence.

Whenever I mentioned the anti-Dutch graffiti, they all shrugged it off. "Juvenile delinquents!" was the verdict of the unemployed actress, while a copywriter who had sold his ad agency "lock, stock, and barrel" in order to settle in the Dor­dogne assured me that the slogans were mostly aimed at Dutch campers, who brought all their groceries from Holland in their trailers and didn't spend a cent in the local shops.

"We're not like that," he said. "We eat in their restaurants, have a Pernod in their cafes, and read their newspapers. With­out people like Serge, and a lot of others, there would be plenty of masons and plumbers around here without work."

"And let's not forget the local winemakers!" said Serge, raising his glass. "Cheers!"

Back in the shadows, in the darkest part of the garden be­side the hedge, the skinny choreographer was making out with the younger member of the writer couple. I saw a hand slip in­side a shirt and looked the other way.

But what if the slogan-scrawlers didn't stop at mere slo­gans? I asked myself. It probably wouldn't take much to scare off this band of cowards. The Dutch had a tendency to shit in their pants at the mere threat of real violence. You could start off by throwing rocks through windows, and if that didn't work, you could burn down a couple of residences secondaires. Not too many, because the real objective was to let those houses pass back into the hands of people who had first claim on them: the young French newlyweds who for years now had been forced by skyrocketing property prices to live with their parents. The Dutch had ruined the housing market for the local people; astronomical sums were being paid even for ruins. With the help of relatively inexpensive French masons, the ruin was then rebuilt, only to remain uninhabited for most of the year. When you looked at it that way, in a clear, cold light, it was a miracle that there had been so few real incidents, that the native popu­lation had been content merely to scrawl a little graffiti.

I let my gaze travel over the lawn. Someone had put on a CD by Edith Piaf. Babette, who had chosen a wide, translu­cent black dress for the party, was executing a few unsteady, tipsy dance steps to the tune of "Non, je ne regrette rien ..." If broken windows and arson didn't do it, you could always take things up a notch, I thought to myself. You could lure one of these Dutch pussies away from his home under the pretense that you knew where there was another, even cheaper winemaker, then pound him to a pulp in some cornfield. Not just slap him up against the side of the head — no, sterner stuff, baseball bats and flails.

Or if you saw one out walking on his own, at a bend in the road, coming back from the supermarket with a shopping bag full of baguettes and red wine, you could let your car make a little skid. Almost by accident. "He was suddenly right there, right in front of my bumper," you could say later — or you could say nothing at all. You could leave the Dutchman lying on the edge of the road like roadkill, and when you got home, you could wash any telltale traces off the bumper and fender. All was fair, as long as the message got across: You people don't belong here! Fuck off back to where you came from! Go home and play at being in France in your own country, with your ba­guettes and red wine, but not here, not where we come from!

"Paul ... ! Paul ... !" From the middle of the lawn, with her flapping gown dangerously close to the flame of one of the braziers, Babette was holding out her arms to me. "Milord" was booming from the loudspeakers. Dancing. To be dancing on the grass with my brother's wife. Happy as God in France. I looked around and saw Claire standing at the table with the cheeses — and at that same moment, she saw me.

She was talking to the unemployed actress and threw me a desperate glance. At parties back in Holland, that meant "Can't we go home, please?" But we couldn't go home. We were doomed to press on to the bitter end. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we would be allowed to go away. "Help!" was all Claire's look was saying now.

I gestured to my sister-in-law — a gesture that said something like "I can't right now," but that later I would be sure to come and dance with her across the lawn — and walked toward the table with the cheeses. "Allez riez, Milord! Chantez, Milord!" Edith Piaf sang. There were, of course, stubborn characters among all those hundreds of Dutch people with summer homes in the Dordogne, I thought to myself. Characters who closed their eyes to the truth, who simply wouldn't admit the fact that they were unwanted foreigners around here. Who, despite all evidence to the contrary, kept insisting that it was all the work of a "tiny minority," the smashed windows and the acts of arson and the battered and run-over countrymen. Perhaps those last bullheads would have to be freed from their illusions with a little more force.

I thought about Straw Dogs and Deliverance, films that come to mind whenever I am out in the sticks, but never more than here, in the Dordogne, on the hilltop where my brother and his wife had created what they called their "little French paradise." In Straw Dogs, the local population — after limiting themselves at first to a little badgering — take horrible revenge on the newcomers who think they've bought a cute little house in the English countryside. In Deliverance, it's the American hillbillies who rudely interrupt a group of city slickers on a ca­noeing trip. Rape and murder feature prominently in both films.

The actress looked me over from head to toe before speak­ing. "Your wife tells me you will be leaving us tomorrow." Her voice had something artificially sweet to it, like the substance in Diet Coke, or the filling they use in diabetic chocolates, which say on the package that they won't make you fat. I looked at Claire, who rolled her eyes slightly, up at the star-studded sky. "And that you're going to Spain, of all places."

I thought about one of my favorite scenes from Straw Dogs. What would this artificial voice sound like if its owner were to be dragged into a barn by a pair of drunken French brick­layers? So drunk they could no longer tell the difference be­tween a woman and the ruins of a cottage with only the walls still standing. Would she still be shooting her mouth off when the bricklayers set about rectifying her foundation? Would the voice come loose of its own accord once it was being peeled off, layer by layer?

At that very moment, a commotion arose at the edge of the garden, not the darkened edge with bushes where the chore­ographer had been groping the younger of the two writers, but closer to the house, along the pathway leading to the paved road.

It was a group of about five men. Frenchmen, I saw right away, although I'd be hard pressed to say why — their clothes probably, which had something rural about them without being as emphatically sloppy and disheveled as these Dutch people playing at being in France. One of the men had a shotgun slung over his shoulder.

Perhaps the children really had said something. Maybe they actually had asked permission to leave the party and go "into the village," as our Michel continued to insist the following day. On the other hand, I hadn't really noticed that they had been gone for the last few hours. Serge's daughter, Valerie, had been in the kitchen for most of the evening, watching TV; at a certain point, she had come out and said goodnight to all of us, and given her uncle Paul two pecks on the cheek.

Now Michel was standing between two Frenchmen, his head bowed. His black hair, which he had let grow to shoulder length that summer, hung lankly along his face. One of the two men was holding him by the upper arm. Serge's son, Rick, was being held too, albeit a bit more loosely. One of the Frenchmen had his hand resting lightly on his shoulder, as though he no longer posed a threat.

It was, in fact, Beau — Serge's adopted son from Burkina Faso who had arrived here among the Dutch people in the Dor­dogne by way of the relief project for his corrugated-iron school building and his new parents, with a layover in Holland — who had to be held tight. He was kicking and flailing. Two other Frenchmen had twisted his arms up behind his back and finally got him onto the ground, face down in the grass of my brother's garden.

"Messieurs ... ! Messieurs!" I heard Serge call out as he hurried with giant steps toward the group. But he had already knocked back quite a bit of the local red and was clearly having a hard time walking straight at all. "Messieurs! Qu'est-ce qu'il se passe?"


Reprinted from The Dinner by Herman Koch. Copyright 2013. Published by Hogarth, a division of Random House Inc.

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