My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Those were the words of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and I believe that Herman Koch, author of The Dinner, subscribed to the sentiment while writing this short, but very intense novel about ethics, privilege, and human politics. The restaurant and the meal around which the plot revolves is not an arbitrary backdrop to the disturbing events that unfold. Instead, the dinner serves as the foreground for every significant theme in the novel: class, power, fraternity, and identity not being the least of them. We understand the narrator, and subsequently the entire narrative, through the way that he eats and cooks and how he perceives the way he is served. Two restaurants, the eponymous “Dinner” setting, and a restaurant across the street are tableaus for the tensions that run throughout.
The high-end restaurant where the narrator, his brother, and their respective wives dine is “all organic” with a head waiter who points at the tiny preparations on vast white plates with his pinky, and describes the “Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary”; descriptions that, in all honesty are a ruse and one the narrator is aware of. Most folks can find ingredients like these in their local supermarket. The restaurant is serving simple fare wrapped in the aggrandized language of the elite. The check, when it arrives at the end of the meal is preposterous; the narrator says that he “won’t go into all the things you could do with a sum of money like that, or about how many days a normal person would have to work to earn it…the kind of sum that would make you burst out laughing.”
Even though the narrator is aware of the elitist charade of which he is a part, he seems oblivious that he has internalized it; he has a sense of entitlement, no ethical culpability to anyone but himself, and a crippling envy of his own brother’s success. Although critical of the elitism in the restaurant, his disgust at those he classifies as “other,” specifically lower socio-economic classes, never occurs to him as equally offensive. The cafe across the street he routinely calls the “cafe for regular people.” “Regular” being a derogatory term for those with no money or power. When he is served a fancifully plated ear of corn he tells us that he’s offended by the dish because “corn cobs, first and foremost, are pig feed.” Food is a means by which the narrator believes one can separate the wheat from the chaff. He even goes so far as to discern between the educated and uneducated elite, saying that those “unbothered by any actual knowledge of food” deserve to have a fist thrown “right into their inquisitive, spoiled mouths, knuckles hard against the front teeth, breaking them off close to the root” when they ask naive questions about the menu in a fine dining establishment.
The Dinner is certainly about more than food and dining and class, but the role these things play creates a palpable tension that is somehow both disturbing and illuminating.