Feast of Fools
By Ascot Fitzgerald
I have been engaged by the editorial staff to give what is essentially a schoolboy’s book report. I say engaged rather than employed, as I’m expected to provide this service without pay. Ah, free labor — the lot of most interns these days. Besides, there are more and better rewards than gold, so I’m happy to serve you.
Our entrée for the evening is The Dinner, a 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch. The English translation is by Sam Garrett (2012). Reading a translation always presents a dilemma as to whom to praise (or blame). I’ve always regretted being unable to read Umberto Eco in the original Italian. Or Calvino, Boccaccio, and Dante, for that matter.
I’d heard a review of the book on NPR, and was immediately intrigued. We must be careful about glowing reviews. Books, like the other arts, are subjective, and you could find yourself standing hip deep in the middle of a garbage heap, as I did years ago. The Bridges of Madison County was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time, and after finishing it I was reminded of a favorite quote by Dorothy Parker: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” This time out was more satisfying.
As the story begins, two couples meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant. The two men are brothers, and they bring some heavy baggage to the table, wives not included. As the polite and banal small talk proceeds, you can feel the knives being sharpened. It wasn’t long before I felt I could encapsulate the whole thing: Bitter — party of four. Much more lies beneath the surface, though. There is something important to discuss, something about their children, and I’ll say no more on that.
The book is also a lacerating and wickedly funny satire on those ostentatious five-star eateries who take themselves so seriously. Where the main course is one ounce of meat garnished with a sprig of some exotic herb, and perhaps drizzled with some pretentious sauce, isolated on an otherwise naked white plate. How did you find your steak, sir? Oh, I looked under the arugula leaf, and there it was! Here’s the manager expostulating on one of the appetizers: “The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions. And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.” On occasions when I have the misfortune to be subjected to such culinary miserliness, I always make it a point to stop off at some family restaurant later, for chicken fried steak and country gravy. Ambience is one thing; sustenance is something else entirely, and usually easier on the pocketbook.
None of the characters are people you’d care to spend time around, unless you think that by currying favor with Serge, it might further your political career. The narrator, Paul, is perhaps the least sympathetic of the bunch, although I found his cynicism intoxicating. This shouldn’t deter you from enjoying this “Lost Supper.” After all, I watched every episode of “Seinfeld,” but I wouldn’t want to be friends with any of those characters, either. At its heart of darkness, and it is very dark, one could say the story deals with good old fashioned family values . . . in a way.
I read the book in a single setting, I’d say about six hours or so. There was no choice. It grabs you by the throat and sticks there; the Heimlich maneuver will not avail you. I can recall only one other book that put me on such a nervous edge from the beginning and kept me there throughout, and that was Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment. Ironically, both books deal with the same central theme. Are there some people who are not fully human, and therefore beneath the rest of us? And if so, is it permissible to dispose of them? I confess that the idea has crossed my mind more than once, while at the same time realizing we’re entering dangerous territory here.
It is my hope that this little appetizer will entice you to order the main course (It’s alimentary, my dear Watson). So strap on that foodbag and dig in. Masticate to your heart’s content; there’s plenty to chew on. I also advise you to try and persuade your friends to read it as well, as you’re going to want someone with whom to discuss it. Bon appetit! Oh waiter . . . check, please.