In the Mind of a Madman

The Dinner

By Herman Koch

We know what evil looks like. We certainly see enough of it everyday. But what does it sound like; that is, sound like in the head of a person possessed by uncontrollable urges fueled by unbridled anger, resentment, envy, and paranoia? It sounds like Paul Lohman, protagonist in Koch’s suspenseful and truly disturbing novel.

Briefly, Paul is a discharged teacher with a wife, a teenage son, and a young autistic daughter. His brother is a popular politician running for the Netherlands’ PM post. He and his wife have two teenage sons, one by birth, the other adopted from Burkina Faso. At his brother’s behest, Paul and his wife are having dinner in a swank restaurant with the brother and wife to discuss a matter of mutual importance regarding their sons. During the course of the dinner, we slowly learn the nature of this matter, and travel into Paul’s past with him to find out how everyone arrived at the dinner. As you might guess, the matter involves extreme brutality, murder, and shockingly amoral behavior—that is sociopathy that devolves into psychopathic rampage.

Two things give the book its jolting power. First, Koch uses first-person narrative effectively. Paul tells the story. We know only what is happening, what happened in the past, and the ending from his viewpoint. And he is a crazy man. But he’s not an overt crazy, at least in the beginning. Certainly odd and disconcerting, but his true insanity reveals itself as the story moves long. Second, the tone of the book conveys the nuttiness of the situation and Paul. While this is a translation from the Dutch, Koch is multilingual, and one of the languages is English. Hard to imagine him not looking over the translation. So, the tone probably mirrors that of the original. Finally, there’s little descriptive violence, just enough to get across the heinous acts of the boys, as well as those in Paul’s past. Further, viewing it through Paul’s distorted lens increases its monstrousness.

In short, The Dinner doesn’t read like a typical crime novel. It feels more like a literary novel with a crime as the subject. To approach it with the expectations of a crime story that includes frenetic pacing and regular outbursts of violence could lead to a disappointing reading experience. Above all, the novel is a psychological drama with crime at its heart. w/c

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