Friday 20 September 2019

Middle class murder at the dinner table

It's unusual to meet an author to talk about a book that was first published over three years ago, but that's the case with Dutch writer Herman Koch.

His novel, The Dinner, has just been published in English, having spent three years on the bestseller list in Holland. It's already been published in 20 different languages and sold one million copies across Europe.

As its title suggests, the action takes place over the course of a dinner. Serge is set to become the next prime minister, while his brother Paul is a teacher.

They meet their wives to discuss what to do about their teenage sons, who have been caught committing an act on CCTV, but not yet identified.

The book is darkly funny, satirising all sorts of topics from fine restaurants to the extent to which a parent will go to protect their children.

The idea came to Koch, naturally enough, over a meal. "Five or six years ago, I was having a lunch with Spanish friends and family members at Christmas and suddenly I thought, let's make a novel which is called The Dinner, and is like a menu and you have all this conversation. I even had the first two sentences.

"The next day, all over the television, there was this real case of two teenage boys who started to molest a homeless woman in a cash dispenser and they were filmed by CCTV cameras.

"It was all over the news and in the papers and they were recognised immediately and arrested the next day.

"What struck me most was they weren't skinheads with chains or leather jackets and afterwards it was proven they weren't drunk or taking drugs. They weren't even spoiled rich kids. They were normal, middle-class boys; they were just having fun and it got out of hand.

"At that moment I wasn't even thinking of the victim; I just thought, these two boys are spoiling their whole future in five minutes. Also, because they were so recognisable, I thought this could be my son, or anybody's son."

It calls to mind books like We Need To Talk About Kevin and Cristos Tsiolkas's The Slap.

"What interests me is how completely normal people become murderers. It's far more interesting to say, at what points do we resemble Mussolini and Hitler, as opposed to why are they such monsters.

"I think all of these things are the price we pay for the well-to-do society we live in. I can understand the logic in this. When you're living in exciting times or you're bombed every other day we might be less violent in the day-to-day life in the street."

Since the book became a bestseller he says his life has changed both financially and travel-wise, but his favourite part is that it has given him the freedom to write what he wants.

"It's a dream come true, and it could last five years or 10 years and I don't care if later on I have less money. The money is not important but the freedom to do what you want is."

He is currently working on a surrealist fantasy of something that could well happen to him in 40 years' time.

"The story is, a man writes a letter to an old writer saying, '40 years ago you used a real true-life case for a novel of yours which became a bestseller. I am one of the persons who was involved in this case.

"In your novel, you were quite near what really happened but you don't know it all. Are you interested in knowing the real story?'"

He concedes it's not likely, but it could happen. It is this sense of the possible, however hypothetical, that gives Koch's book its power.

The Dinner is published by Atlantic Books.

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