Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Literary bestseller's first bites are the best

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THIS European literary bestseller doesn't live up to its hilariously venomous opening pages.

The supposedly urbane first-person narrator describes in disdainful detail the night out he and his wife have with his older brother and sister-in-law at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant.

Paul heaps scorn on every aspect of the evening, the hovering waiter, the pretentious menu, the minuscule portions.

"A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the beginning of the 21st century," he observes, "all they'll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called 'top' restaurants."

But he saves his deepest scorn for his brother, a popular politician an election away from being prime minister. To Paul, Serge is a fraud, intellectually, socially, personally.

"I bet my brother f s the way he eats," Paul says, "that he stuffs himself into a woman the way he stuffs a beef croquette into his mouth."

It is giving away little to reveal that Dutch author Herman Koch is withholding information about Paul, who is too smugly superior for his own good.

It turns out that the couples are dining together to discuss what to do about their respective teenage sons, who have committed a heinous act out of A Clockwork Orange.

But this plot line, which consumes almost half the novel, is not nearly as provocative, nor as blackly comic, as Paul's judgmental rants about contemporary European mores.

Despite its corrosive intent, The Dinner is an accessible read, dominated by dialogue and lean, cool prose, at least in its translation by Sam Garrett, an American.

Koch divides the story into bite-sized chapters, many of only three or four pages. He titles each section by the course of a meal -- the aperitif, the appetizer, the entré, etc. The entire book is easily digested in a couple of sittings.

Koch's premise bears a resemblance to the French playwright Yasmina Reza's hit Carnage, in which two couples fight over their sons' violent playground encounter. But in its severe assessment of modernity, The Dinner calls to mind the novels of French satirist Michel Houellebecq.

Koch is unpersuasive with his teenage characters and especially with the two wives, whose motives remain mystifying. But he excels at slowly revealing Paul's contempt for the world to be product of anger and failure.

Paul's Dutch world view, in fact, is not unlike that of an insecure Canadian brow-beaten by American self-confidence.

Paul notes that Serge and his wife "belong to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is great."

But when they vacation over the border, Paul notes, "they failed to see that the local French population ... fairly retched at the sight of Dutch people."

The Dinner is best when it stays in the restaurant. Once outside, it loses its flavour.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J8

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