Saturday, May 24, 2014

Nothing Lost in Translation

While looking through the audiobooks at the public library this week, it dawned on me what odds an author faces. Without the good fortune of book advice, we often have to judge a book by its cover. And while I can always find a book to read, I have more trouble sifting through the audiobooks. Even when I can download them through NC Digital Library (and if you haven't tried it, you should), I usually have to wait.  I'm 15 of 18 on the waiting list.

This week, though, I knew I'd be booking some road time and I needed a new book to read, so I ended up selecting The Dinner by Herman Koch, a book in translation set in the Netherlands.  I'm still trying to process what I read.  Most of the narrative takes place as two couples (whom I learn after a bit are two brothers and their wives) are meeting for dinner at an excluding restaurant. The narrator Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are meeting his sister-in-law Babette and his brother Serge, who has arranged the meal--waiting to call the day of the meal to show he can bypass the usual three-to-five months wait because he's a candidate and presumably a shoo-in for prime minister.  At one point early in the evening, Serge says, "We need to talk about our children."

Gradually through flashbacks and Paul's interior monologue, readers learn that Paul and Claire's only child, their son Michel has gotten into some kind of trouble with his cousin--Serge and Babette's natural son Rick--and that their adopted African son Bo is somehow involved.

Only over time to readers begin to doubt the narrator's reliability--and mental health, in some ways.  Just how much each of the parents knows, and whether they know how much the others know is information parceled out little by little.  Though Paul seems obsessed with the idea of being a happy family, the likelihood becomes more and more doubtful.  Even the way the narrator withholds information--as if talking directly to readers--sets one on alert. He withholds the name of the restaurant, the name of the city, the nature of an illness Claire underwent when Michel was four.

The story also shows the different ways in which parents gauge the consequences of their children's actions and misdeeds: some are more interested in their children's future; others, their own.  Most interesting, few of the characters seem concerned with what is right and wrong.  At times, Paul even refers to the more lax legal consequences in Holland. He seems aware that other nations don't take the Dutch seriously.

Throughout the narrative, he also seems particularly interested in genetics: what do we pass on to our children? What would we do with prior knowledge?

I'm not sure the author actually wanted the reader to identify with Paul. While he is, at times, a sympathetic character, he gives enough glimpses into his mind to make readers doubt his mental clarity, even his conscience.  Not exactly a feel-good read, but I suspect I'll be thinking of the story for quite a while.


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