Herman Koch’s The Dinner was one of the publishing hits of 2012, garnering wildly differing views on whether it was an extremely well executed novel about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring or a nasty book about some very dislikable people. I enjoyed it on the whole though wasn’t convinced by the narrator Paul, a failed teacher who despises his more successful politician and celebrity brother Serge.
The two men and their wives meet in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. Amid the They are there to discuss an act of unprovoked violence committed by their teenage sons. Koch reveals the nature of the boys’ attack in between scenes where a servile waiter describes the provenance of each item of food in infinite detail. It’s an evident swipe at overly pretentious restaurants. The lamb’s-neck sweetbread might have been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and the sun-dried tomatoes raised in Bulgaria but there still isn’t very much to eat.
The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You wouldn’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.
Paul is clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder. He despises everything his brother and sister in law represent.
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.”
But the reason for this deep resentment towards his brother was never fully explained. Is it purely a case of envy at the celebrity status his brother has acquired as the front runner in the upcoming national elections? Or is this another example of how Koch has structured his novel around secrets and the necessity of keeping them just that: secret.
Surprisingly for a novel about a hat with supposed magical properties, the plot of The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain similarly turns on a meal.
Middle-ranking officer worker Daniel Mercier decides to take advantage of his wife’s absence one evening to treat himself to dinner in an elegant Parisienne brasserie. While savouring a seafood platter and crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, (and trying to ignore the price), he is astounded when the banquette alongside him is occupied by President Mitterand. Mercier lingers over his meal, eavesdropping on Mitterand’s conversation with his cohorts. When the President leaves, he has forgotten his hat. It ends up gracing the head of the starry-eyed Mercier.
He quickly discovers that the hat confers authority and confidence. His superiors discover his full potential and give him promotion. But Mercier loses the hat. The next person to find it similarly realises that its possession emboldens her to make a big change in her life. The hat passes through a succession of hands, acquiring talismanic qualities as the fortunes of each of its new owners are transformed.
This was an impulse buy and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the brasserie and Daniel’s repast, overall I found it far too light and frothy. I suppose it was meant to be a fable of a time that no longer exists – one where no-one goes out for dinner and spends all their time texting ‘friends’ or drinks a full bottle of wine and then drives home.
The Dinner by Herman Koch is published in the UK by Atlantic Books. Koch is a Dutch author who has also worked as a television actor and newspaper columnist.
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. Laurain was born in Paris where he has worked as a journalist and indulged his passion for collecting antiques. His next novel is due to be published later in 2015.