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Mon February 18, 2013
Books

'The Dinner' Asks: What Will You Do To Protect Your Family?

Dutch author Herman Koch's new novel The Dinner is one meal you may feel a little strange after. The titular dinner is one planned by two couples — two brothers and their wives — at which they must discuss a terrible crime most likely committed by their sons. The crime is not yet public, but grainy video footage exists — and both sets of parents know it depicts their offspring.

Koch tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that he's a parent himself, "so the idea more or less came from there, just a feeling of what you would do to defend your children," even in an extreme case like the one Koch creates in The Dinner.

The two couples meet at a rather posh restaurant; the food is organic, the clientele upscale — politicians, artists and sports stars — and at first, they seem to be talking about their values, of tolerance and anti-racism, and what's important to them as parents. And at first, the narrator, Paul, seems sympathetic. "But then suddenly, not only are his opinions but maybe his actions are becoming more extreme," Koch says, "so we might start to doubt if the version he gives of what the other three adults at the table are telling us, or how they are, is really the true story."

Readers discover gradually that Paul is an unreliable narrator, and Koch says the same thing happened to him as he was writing the story. "It's only in the first sentence of the book, that you learn something about the character when he says, 'we were going out to dinner and I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we are there,' so he's already hiding something."

Paul is also a parent, who's trying very hard to transmit his values to his teenaged son, Michel. "Of course, this might not be the right set of values, but he actually believes that his values are right," Koch says. "He believes in happiness, he believes in the happy marriage that he has, and his happy family, and he wants to defend this family against all outside forces, whether this is the police, or psychologists, or social workers. They won't come in." Koch compares Paul to Tony Soprano — someone who's sympathetic in defense of his family, even though we know his values aren't ours.

Paul is also trying to give his son space and privacy, despite his knowledge of the probably crime. "In one way or another, every parent is curious what their children ... what are they doing when we don't see? ... What double lives are they leading? Is there something else?" Koch says Paul's combination of curiosity and desire to give his son privacy reflect his own real-world attitudes towards his son.

The Dinner has been out in Europe for some time, and Koch says peoples' reactions run the gamut. "It goes from people saying, 'oh, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not, to put it mildly,' and there's another part of the readers who say, 'finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.'"

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

How far would you go to protect your family? That's the overarching question in the new novel "The Dinner" by Dutch writer Herman Koch. Although the book only recently hit shelves in American stores, "The Dinner" has been on international bestseller lists since 2009. It's a suspense novel, laced with compelling twists, a disturbing storyline and a surprising ending, which we won't reveal - all that in a story that unfolds entirely over dinner. Steve Inskeep spoke with Herman Koch about "The Dinner."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congratulations on the novel.

HERMAN KOCH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Let me say, in the best possible way, it made me sick.

(LAUGHTER)

KOCH: Really? OK.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm a parent, so, you know, you get into these issues. I assume that's what you intended, right? I mean, this is - you're going into some really, really personal, really edgy stuff here, aren't you?

KOCH: Yes, I am. And it's, of course, I must explain that I'm a parent myself. So the idea more or less came from there, just a feeling of what you would do to defend your children, but even in a very extreme case like is put forward in this novel.

INSKEEP: In this case - and we don't want to give away too much - but it's been said in reviews and you find within a few chapters that you have two sets of parents. They meet over dinner. They're discussing their sons, who appear to have videotaped themselves and been caught on security videotape doing something awful.

KOCH: You're right.

INSKEEP: And they discuss this all over dinner.

KOCH: Yes, they do. They go to this kind of luxury restaurant, but it's with organic food. And the clientele is very much politicians, artists, football players.

INSKEEP: And all along the way, you're learning what you imagine to be their values. They're talking about Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" They're talking about various gradations of racism. They're thinking, in some surface way, about being parents and what's important to them.

KOCH: Yes. And, of course, we learn most of the point of the views, also of the others, from Paul, one of the fathers, who's telling the whole story in first person. And we don't know in the beginning what he's like. Maybe we might even sympathize with him, up to a point. But then suddenly, not only his opinions, but maybe his actions are becoming more extreme. So we might start to doubt if the version he gives of what the other three adults at the table are telling us, or how they are, is really the true story.

INSKEEP: Oh, that did happen to me as a reader. At the beginning, you think this is a very normal guy surrounded by grotesque people.

KOCH: Yeah. I thought so, as well. When I started to write, I thought the same thing. This really occurred to me during the process of writing this novel. And it's only in the first sentence of the book that you learn about the something the character when he says we were going out to dinner, and I won't say which restaurant, because next time, it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there. So he's already hiding something.

INSKEEP: So he's, on the surface, a normal guy. Everybody else in Paul's telling seems grotesque. We gradually learn that maybe it's his perception that is warped. And on top of that, he's a parent. He's a parent of a teenaged son.

KOCH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And he minutely observes himself. You describe a man who's trying really hard to transmit a certain set of values to his son.

KOCH: Yes. And, of course, this might not be the right set of values, but he actually believes that his values are right. He believes in happiness. He believes in the happy marriage that he has and his happy family. And he wants to defend this family against all outside forces, whether this is the police or psychologists or social workers. They won't come in. I was actually sometimes thinking when I wrote this book, in a series like "The Sopranos," where something like this is also happening. You can feel sympathy for Tony Soprano, how he's behaving in his family life, but you know that his set of values is in general different from our set of values.

INSKEEP: This is something that I suspect that parents can relate to, or at least understand the circumstance. You have someone who is your blood relation, who is your son or daughter, who, beyond doubt, has done something truly horrible. And the question comes up: What do you do?

KOCH: What do you do? Yeah. And that was the, of course, the question I asked myself. But, anyway, I started out this way thinking, well, you would do everything for your child. You know, you would - organ transplantation, and in the end, you would even maybe give your life.

INSKEEP: You also portray this narrator, Paul, as being a guy who, even as he seems to be inching toward the notion of overlooking a horrible crime, trying so hard to give his son some space. There are many discussions about privacy. There's a minutely described moment where he is sitting near his son while the son, very young, is sending text messages or something online. And the father not only doesn't look, but tries to sit in such a way that the son has no suspicion that the father would ever even dream of looking. He's thinking about even his body language.

KOCH: Yeah. That's me.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Is it really?

KOCH: Yeah, I think so. I'm - but I think, in one way or another, every parent is curious what their children - certainly young adult children, adolescents, you know - what are they doing when we don't see what they do? So, from, you know, like, 14-year-old until 18-year-old, this is the age where they go out and we don't see them all the time. They're not all the time in our home or at school. And then you think: What double lives are they leading? Is there something else? And then you get this dilemma when you think there's a mobile phone now here on the table. He left it at home. Will I look?

INSKEEP: How old are your kids, and how many?

KOCH: I have one son, and he's now 18. And when I started to write the book, he was only 11.

INSKEEP: And you end up writing here about a father - that's the narrator - and his teenage son, who's kind of in the middle teenage years, as I recall.

KOCH: Yeah. So, 15 or 16 years old, yeah.

INSKEEP: Has your son read this book?

KOCH: Well, I must admit that he's not a big reader, and that includes mine. But I respect it, because I think he has to keep some distance of this father.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Because this book has been out for a while before coming to the United States, there's room to ask this question: As you have heard people's responses to the book, has it turned out to be sort of like a Rorschach test, different people see different things in it?

KOCH: Yeah, I'm sure. It goes from people saying, well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not, to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking. This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?

INSKEEP: The novel is "The Dinner." The author is Herman Koch. Thanks very much.

KOCH: OK. You're welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You can read and hear an excerpt from "The Dinner" at npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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