Tuesday 20 March 2018

After 'The Dinner', an uncomfortable conversation

Fiction: Dear Mr. M, Herman Koch, Picador, hdbk, 416 pages, €17.99

Shifting perspectives: Koch has opted for an intriguing narrative structure in his new novel
Shifting perspectives: Koch has opted for an intriguing narrative structure in his new novel
Herman Koch's 'Dear Mr. M'.

Hilary A White

Dutch literary enfant terrible Herman Koch will ruffle more feathers with his latest novel - although how big and clever such provocation is is another matter.

Herman Koch appears to have settled into the tag of The Netherland's prime literary enfant terrible. His 2009 debut The Dinner was already a massive bestseller by the time it was translated into English in 2012. It told of four people meeting up in a swanky Amsterdam restaurant to discuss a serious family matter, and pulled no punches in laying bare the mucky morals of adult life to the point that it left a sour yet intriguing taste with reviewers and the public alike.

Whether the actor-turned-author is prone to trading in ugly truths is up for discussion, a discussion you will likely have at many junctions in this sprawling, stealthy work. You can rest assured he has made a fine art out of the "ugly" bit. It's just the "truth" part that the jury is still out on - is he simply prodding situations with a stick?

As a teenager in Amsterdam, Koch's school played host to a small scandal between one of his teachers and a fellow 17-year-old student. On the face of it, such a scenario is reprehensible and a breach of moral conduct. Or so Koch assumed until the very same teacher and the very same student turned up at one of his readings many years later. It turned out they had been happily married for 40-odd years.

The author's cogs turned wildly. What is right and what is wrong? What is the difference in appearance between a "victim" and a "predator"? What power does a writer wield in depicting a crime and what responsibilities come with that power? Dear Mr. M takes the scenic route in tackling these questions.

The Mr. M of the title is an ageing literary star in the Netherlands who has not seen quite the same success with his later titles as he did with an early novel called Payback. This huge bestseller gave an account of a sordid episode involving a love triangle between a school teacher called Jan, a beautiful teenage student, Laura, and a strange, skinny and vindictive classmate called, of all things, Herman.

Mr. M is being watched throughout by an unnamed neighbour who is obsessed with the author and his young trophy wife. Through this unreliable narrative perspective, M's existence has elegant scorn heaped upon it, from his demise as a writer of any merit to his apparent shortcomings as a citizen. It is protracted hatemail but we are not quite sure if a stamp has been affixed to the envelope. Much of it is deliciously diabolical and Koch shows great stamina of rhythm in these passages of calmly lacerating diatribe.

The angle switches back and forth through time to peer into the particulars of that school scandal in painstaking detail. We are brought deep inside the motives, fears and perverted inclinations of the three central players and those in their orbit, and while an argument is built against M and his convenient novelising of the event, there is padding in one exhaustive central wad of text that could have been refined.

What happens outside of this bulky portion of school-corridor intrigue is more interesting. Koch has no qualms about upsetting everyday dichotomies and when he fixes his cross-hairs on neat bourgeois sensibilities with that jaundiced, almost Scandinavian detachment, he is quite effective at ruffling feathers. How big and clever such provocation is is another matter.

Mr. M, you see, is a famous author, a person looked up to in society as a man of wisdom and learning. Underneath it all, our narrator reveals, he is not a very nice person when you get inside his head. Those themes of ambiguous victimhood and culpability shine through in M's views on modern-day immigration ("there are some things that have to be said, because otherwise no one will say them these days") and the sorry fight that the Dutch Resistance put up to the Nazis during World War II ("Any German soldier told that he was to be stationed in Holland breathed a sigh of relief"). Dutch society is weak and pitiful in the eyes of M.

Far more serious a character reference, as far as his creeping stalker is concerned, is the fact that M refused to let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. He is accused of bending the findings of his own amateur sleuthing in order to serve the readability of Payback and thus appease a snivelling publishing industry, a book-buying readership of idiots and an insufferable troupe of fellow authors whom he despises for various reasons. The police investigation had never reached a satisfactory conclusion and now M's book is the accepted take on events.

With its shifting caverns of perspective and intriguing narrative structure (the latter sharpening to a pronounced point by the final chapters), Dear Mr. M is absorbing divilment for the most part. It is darkly hilarious and scathing, and packs a very definite edge by virtue of Koch's insistence on pushing certain buttons (those of a mild disposition should approach with caution). The bold philosophies germinating through its small handful of characters will chime with those who enjoyed The Dinner (which is getting a Hollywood reworking as we speak).

As the pages turn and the real essence of these individuals is exposed, a cooling effect takes hold, something more wide-angled and depressing than Koch's brattishness first suggests. "What is it we look for in a book? That someone goes through a process of maturation - that he achieves insight? But imagine if that process and that insight simply aren't there? Wouldn't that, in fact, be much more like life itself?"

We can admire Koch for challenging us like this. We don't have to like the questions, however.

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