‘Sometimes I think things … Then I don’t know whether you’re really allowed to think things like that,’ comments Michel Lohman, one of two teenage boys at the centre of Herman Koch’s The Dinner. He’s confiding in his father, Paul, the narrator of a novel that takes a special delight in thinking the unthinkable. The boys, two cousins, have committed an unprovoked act of violence, made notorious from its media exposure, and their parents – Paul, his brother Serge, and their wives – are meeting in a slick restaurant in Amsterdam. But as Paul attempts to comprehend and respond to the crime, as yet unpunished, the novel raises the troubling notion that some victims are more innocent than others. Or as Koch puts it, ‘that which falls is weak, that which lies on the ground is prey’.
This latent social Darwinism is unsettling, partly because of the novel’s insistence on the ideal of a happy family. The Dinner takes the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – ‘all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – and examines it from every