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The Dinner by Herman Koch

August 8, 2018 17 comments

The Dinner by Herman Koch. (2009) French title: Le dîner. Translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin.

I didn’t know what to expect with The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I only knew that it had been on my virtual TBR for a while after reading Guy’s review. (See here)

The Dinner is like a tragedy in five acts, from Aperitif to Digestif and from funny to horrible. Paul is our narrator. He’s married to Claire and they have a diner party at a fancy restaurant with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Claire and Paul have a 15 years old son, Michel. Serge and Babette have three children, Rick, Valérie and an adoptive son, Beau. Michel, Rick and Beau are around the same age.

Paul and Claire are not happy to spend their evening with Serge and Babette. Paul describes them as fake and boring and we soon discover that Serge is a famous and rising politician, that he’s going to run for prime minister in a few months.

Paul talks us through the evening. The Aperitif is hilarious with all the sarcastic comments he makes about the restaurant and Serge but there’s already something weird with Michel. With the Entrée come awkward and tense conversation between the two couples and more irritated remarks on the restaurant’s waiter. Memories of a weekend in Dordogne, France at Serge’s house pops up in Paul’s mind. He’s still funny, mocking and we know that Michel, Rick and Beau did something wrong.

The Main Course reveals more bits of Paul and Claire’s life and we start seeing the children under a new and terrifying light. It’s clear that Michel and Rick did something unforgivable. Dessert is when everything unravels and Digestif just pushes the story to an end.

I won’t tell more about the plot otherwise I’d ruin another reader’s fun. Paul is a very unreliable narrator. Someone we like at the beginning of the book before realizing how horrible he is. In a way, The Dinner reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton.  (another recommendation from Guy, btw)

The reader starts rooting for Paul and Claire who sound like a happy and stable couple. Serge and Babette seem as ridiculous as Paul wants us to see them. And then our loyalty shifts. It’s a rollercoaster trip with lots of ups and downs, and the nausea at the end too.

Koch leads the show with maestro. Everything is perfectly orchestrated and I think it’d make a wonderful theatre play. Paul’s caustic tone and propensity to digress is funny and full of clues about who he is. It starts with good-hearted laugh and ends with a forced laugh but there’s a lot of humor in The Dinner.

I thought that Koch was quite hard on his fellow Dutch citizen. He openly makes fun of fancy Dutch restaurants. He also has hard words about Dutch people who bought a house in Dordogne (or in Ardèche) and destabilized the real estate market, resulting in a rise in prices that makes it expensive for the locals to settle down. (The same thing could be said about British people, btw) He also exposes how ambiguous the French locals may feel about the Dutch tourists invading campsites with their caravans full of Dutch food to avoid buying anything locally.

I also wondered about the characters’ names. They sound so French that I thought the translator changed them. But I downloaded a sample of the English edition and they are still named the same. So why? Claire is actually short for Marie-Claire. Babette is a nickname for Elisabeth. Serge and Paul are very common and could be Dutch too but Michel is clearly French. And all the French Michels I know or have heard of were born between 1920 and 1960. Think: Michel Berger, Michel Blanc, Michel Platini, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Foucault, Michel Legrand, Michel Rocard…So it was hard for me to picture an adolescent named Michel. Sorry. But that’s on me, it probably wouldn’t affect another reader.

Do I recommend The Dinner to other readers? Yes. It’s a good summer read. It’s also a good Book Club read because it provides a lot a material for plot discussion and also a debate about the moral dilemma imbedded in the story.

Other reviews: Lisa’s and Marina Sofia’s.

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

June 29, 2011 13 comments

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. 1980.

On the day that Inni Wintrop committed suicide, Philips shares stood at 149.60. The Amserdam Bank closing rate was 375, and Shopping Union had slipped to 141.50. Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases. And that was what he remembered, if he remembered anything: the markets reports, and that the moon shone on the canal and that he had hanged himself in the bathroom because he had predicted, in his own horoscope in Het Parool, that his wife would run off with another man and that he, a Leo, would then commit suicide. It was a perfect prediction. Zita ran off with an Italian, and Inni committed suicide. He had read a poem by Bloem, too, but he could not remember which one. The dog, arrogant beast, let him down on this point.

This is the opening paragraph of Rituals. I was hooked.  

Inni Wintrop is the main character of Rituals. He walks his nonchalance on leash and through his existence and we, reader meet him at three turning-points of his life: first in 1963 when his wife Zita leaves him, second in 1953 flash-back when he first meets Arnold Taads and in 1973 when Philip Taads, Arnold’s son crosses his life. The events are described through Inni’s point of view, not that there are many events in this novel. 

The rituals evoked in the book title are the ones we attend or create for ourselves to make our life bearable. Inni’s first rituals were the ones of Catholic mass until they were damaged by an accident: the priest had a stroke and broke the smoothness of the ritual forever. Inni has a compulsory relationship with women. After his unforgettable sex episode with Petra in 1953, he will try to find that moment again, meeting prostitutes and having flings whenever he can, married or not married. It becomes one of his rituals too.

Arnold Taads is a misanthropist who hates himself. Life is unbearable to him and he divides his days into defined periods of times to cut his suffering in manageable slices of time. He has his own rituals: time to smoke a cigarette, time to read, time to walk the dog…He enjoys solitude and spends his winters in a remote chalet in the Swiss Alps. He needs to walk during six hours in the snow to get some food.

Philip Taads lives a contemplative life in a monastic room of a poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam. His mother was Indonesian. (And there we’re back to the two other Dutch books I’ve read this month) He is attracted to traditional Japanese culture and his ritual is the Japanese tea ceremony. To Inni, this ceremony looks a lot like a part of the Catholic worship. 

The author explores loneliness through the Taads and also the way we have no other choice than to surrender to social rules or live apart in seclusion.   

When reading Nooteboom, I imagined life as an untameable flow. Sometimes Inni manages to swim; sometimes he swallows water and most of the time he takes women as lifebuoys. He hangs onto them. All the images that come to my mind are linked to water, I don’t know why. Rituals is also a novel about memories, in a Proustian sense. Memory isn’t a straight path with defined mileposts. It’s a patchwork of random images and we fail to understand why that event, sensation, image, word stuck into our memory when others flew away, evading us. 

How it was that he could remember poems by heart was a mystery to him, and he often reflected that perhaps he would have done better to learn his life by heart so that in these recurring nocturnal last moments he could at least have watched an orderly film instead of all those loose fragments without a cohesion you might have expected of a life just ended. Perhaps the daily death was so mensely sad because no one was really dying at all. There were only a number of barely connected snapshots at which nobody would ever look.

Nooteboom reminded me of Philippe Djian in Impardonnables. Rituals has the same atmosphere of inevitable catastrophes. Side characters are weird. Like in most novels by Djian, the narrator is also a man who doesn’t know the meaning of his life. He lives from one day to another, selling art pieces, writing horoscopes. He has the same kind of dependence on women than men in Djian’s universe. The sense of humour also recalled me Djian. The scene when Inni is circumcised (he was an adult then, and it was rather painful to read, even for a woman) could have been written by Djian.

Apparently, Inni is a silly name for a Dutchman. To the Frenchwoman I am, it doesn’t sound stranger than Cees, the author’s first name. So I’ll be grateful if someone can decipher for me why Inni is a ridiculous name.  

Rituals is a book to read slowly, in a quiet room, to savour the taste of the words, to hear the music of the phrases and feel the waves of Nooteboom’s thoughts. There is a persistent sadness in that novel, nagging, slipping under the reader’s skin like a sneaking snake. It us one of the best books I’ve read this year so far. I wonder if Inni and Cees are the same person. In 1973, Inni is 40, just like Cees. He has received a strong Catholic education, Nooteboom attended several Catholic schools. They both love poetry.

Like Caroline, Rituals only leaves me hungry to read his other works. Philippe Noble translated Rituelen into French and I think he’s a brilliant translator. His Max Havelaar was already really good and his translation of Nooteboom flows without effort. Btw, I read the first pages of the English translation on Amazon. This is where I took the quotes in English. (Funny, the quote by Theodor Fontane isn’t translated in the English edition whereas it is in the French one.) 

This was my last Dutch book of the month, part of Iris’s month of Dutch Literature.

PS: Caroline reviewe Mokusai! by Cees Nooteboom here

If you want to know more, Stu from Winstondad’s blog  interviewed Cees Nooteboom. Click here

19th Century colonialism and oppression in the Dutch East Indies

June 27, 2011 8 comments

Max Havelaar, Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli. 1860. 400 pages. Brilliant French translation by Philippe Noble.

 Multatuli is the pseudonym of the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). It means “I suffered a lot”. Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam, son of a sea captain and joined the East Indies Civil Service in 1838. He was involved in several disputes with his superiors but nevertheless got promoted thanks to his intelligence. In 1846, he married Everdine (“Tine”), Baroness van Wijnbergen and they had two children. He didn’t approve of the colonial brutalities towards the natives and eventually resigned from service in 1846. He came back to Europe, living poorly on his writing and endeavouring to improve the situation of the Javanese. Max Havelaar was published in 1860 and is largely based on his own experience. This novel is aimed at putting the situation of the Indonesian under the brightest light as possible to provoke emotion in the public leading to political changes. Multatuli had in mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. It is a manifesto without the form of a manifesto. I don’t need to tell more about the plot but I sure want to explore the ideas he exposes and the literary form he chose as the adequate weapon to spread them.  

Multatuli points at the stupid system of paying the native chiefs. The Dutch remunerate them a percentage of the coffee and other raw products they sell to the Netherlands and nothing on dairy products. They are induced to impose on their people the well-paid cultures instead of rice, leading the local population to starvation. Doesn’t that ring a bell?  

Multatuli also dissects the workings of the colonial administration, from down to top. He enlightens the reader on the chain of cowardice and selfishness that ends up in suffering for the Javanese. At each stage of the chain of command, everyone bends their head down and embroiders the reports. The government in La Haye thinks that everything is fine when it isn’t. The statistics are contradictory for someone who would have a closer look at them. But no one really wants to know, they want to believe the lies. It’s more comfortable. The Civil Servants think about their career and try to smother any attempt to change. Multatuli sums up this attitude in describing “the symptoms of the General Governor’s common disease” that affects every Governor of the East Indies.  

First stage. Dizziness. Drunkenness with incense vapours. Arrogance. Excessive self-confidence. Looks down scornfully on other people and especially on “old colonials”. Second stage. Exhaustion. Fear. Discouragement. Drowsiness, need for rest. Excessive confidence in the East Indian Council. Dependence upon the General Secretary. Nostalgia about a country house in the Netherlands.

Between the two stages, as a transition – perhaps because of this transition – dysentery attacks.

He also rebels against the oppression of the Javanese people by the native chiefs with the complicity of the Dutch administration. He describes how the Dutch colonialism takes advantage of the local feudal customs. Peasants are requisitioned to work for free. Their food supplies are requisitioned to feed the chief’s large family. Worse, the buffaloes are requisitioned, leaving the peasants without a means to cultivate the fields. The Dutch civil servants know it and look to the other side, in a laissez-faire attitude, allowing the local chiefs to rob their people. They are accomplice too as they also take advantage of free work to keep up the land surrounding their colonial house.  

He demonstrates how the brutality and the stupidity of the colonial rule can only lead the natives to rebellion. They have nothing to lose. They fight. They are beaten. La Hayes congratulates the military forces who pacified the area. End of story, until despair pushes them to rebellion again.  

Max Havelaar is also a plea against racism, a prayer to consider the Javanese as equals and treat them right.  

What shocked me is how colonialism was justified by priests:

Wavelaar [A priest] said himself that God drives everything in such a way that a rigorous faith leads to wealth. “In truth”, he says “isn’t there a great wealth in the Netherlands? It comes from our faith. Doesn’t France have to face riots from time to time? It’s because the French are Catholic. Aren’t the Javanese poor? They are Pagans. The more the Dutch will deal with the Javanese, the more wealth will flow in here and the more poverty will settle there. Because this is God’s will.”

I’m not religious but as far as I know, the message of Christianity does not include robbing and oppressing poor people. Using religious texts to justify greed and want of power will always make me indignant.  

Multatuli doesn’t go as far as writing that colonialism is a wrong thing and that the European should come back home and let these people live by themselves. Even if he thought about decolonisation (I don’t know if he did), the European societies were not ready to hear that. He would have missed his short-term goal, i.e. to improve the living conditions of the people of Indonesia. He wants to reform colonialism and “only” reveals the absurdity of the system and recalls the readers that it could already be a lot better if the Civil Servants actually did their job and respected the laws.  

Multatuli used several devices to defend his cause in a light and pleasant way. The first device is rather common in literature to introduce a tale. A man, Batavus Droogstoppel, coffee trader in Amsterdam, receives a parcel from a poor man he used to go to school with. It is made of letters, essays and stories. A young German man, Stern, who lives with the Droogstoppel family decides to write a book based on this material. Droogstoppel reminded me of Scrooge (published in 1843). He acts inhumanly, only thinking about money and business. He’s narrow-minded, self-righteous, sure of his good right and his superiority as a Dutchman. He represents the right-thinking bourgeois society of the Netherlands, wrapped up in their blanket of certitudes. Droogstoppel is selfish, prosaic and compassion is totally foreign to him.  

The other devices lay in the mixed style. Multatuli is a satirist; I could feel the influence of the Enlightenment and French writers such as Diderot or Voltaire. In the foreword, the translator says he was influenced by Sterne, but I’ve never read him. His satirist tendency shows up in the names of the characters. According to the footnotes, Droogstoppel means “Dry Thatch”, and another despicable character is named Slymering (Slimy). Multatuli was also influenced by Romanticism and he particularly liked Heine. As a consequence, Max Havelaar is unclassifiable. It includes tales, poems, dialogues, classic narration and satire. It is Voltaire polished with romantic varnish, which is a strange association. Sometimes it works better than others. Sometimes it’s very funny. Eduard Douwes Dekker must have been a witted man. I suppose he’d be proud to know that his Max Havelaar is now the name of an international label for fair trade, which explains the cover of my French edition.  Western consumers, keep your eyes open and buy Max Havelaar products.

This reading is part of my EU Book Tour and contributes to the month of Dutch Reading hosted by Iris.

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As a PS, let’s digress a bit. In the comments on my post about Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, we discussed how religion influence people’s perception of poverty. I argued that in Catholic countries, poverty is a matter-of-fact. It happens. Contrary to Protestant countries, it doesn’t mean that these persons are abandoned by God. They aren’t responsible for being poor and should not be looked down with contempt. The Netherlands are a Protestant country. Here is how Droogstoppel, who speaks in the name of the Dutch society, assesses poverty and charity.

When you have so little for yourself, it is a sin to give to other people. By the way, I never give money on the streets – it is one of my principles – because as I always say when I see poor people: who knows if it’s not their fault, and I don’t have the right to reinforce their error.

This is the exact opposite reaction to a Catholic: it is a great act of faith to give the little you have to poorer than you and you have to do charity. I’m not judging here and saying one religion is better than the other, it’s just a statement. And it’s important because it is deeply rooted in our cultures and somehow explains why Latin (Catholic) and Northern European or American countries (Protestant) have difficulties to understand each other sometimes. Protestants always feel responsible for other people’s souls and assume they have to intervene, like here, Droogstoppel thinks he could comfort someone in their errors. Catholics think you’re responsible for you own salvation and if someone wants to gamble theirs by acting badly, it’s their problem.

Another priceless and chilling piece by Droogstoppel about poverty: “I don’t like poor people, because usually they can only blame themselves for it: the Lord would not turn his back on who served him with loyalty.” Scandalous. End of digression.

Indonesia mon amour.

June 16, 2011 9 comments

Sleuteloog by Hella S Haasse. 2002. French title: L’anneau de la clé. Not translated into English. 186 pages.

 This book is part of my EU Book Tour and also my participation to the month of Dutch Literature hosted by Iris. I thought it was my first Dutch book but I remembered later that I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and books by Robert Van Gulik. Anyway. Hella S Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She has written more than 20 novels, all translated into French but only a few of them are translated into English. She is known for her historical novels and the influence of her childhood in Batavia on her work. She is compared to Marguerite Yourcenar. Rien que ça.  

But back to Sleuteloog

Herma Warner was born in 1920 in Batavia. She is now over 80 and is about to leave her home to live in a nursing house. She and her late husband Tjeerd belong to the last generation of Dutch born in the Dutch West Indies. They were forced to come back to the Netherlands after Indonesia became independent (1949). Both of them spent their lives studying the history and the art of their native country. A journalist contacts Herma. He wants to interview her about the past of an activist named Mila Wychinska. The now called Mila was Herma’s best friend Dee, from her childhood in Indonesia. Herma is reluctant to give information, to remember some painful moments of her past. She gives in and starts writing what she remembers. Soon, she’s overwhelmed by her memories of that friendship and of the Batavia of that time.

When I was reading, I thought about the Pied Noirs (The French settlers in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). I also thought of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, for the description of life in the colonies inAsia. I haven’t read it, it is on my TBR but Guy reviewed it. Colonialism had to be fought and all the colonies deserved their independence; it wasn’t fair. That’s history at the scale of a nation. But if we come to history at the scale of a human being, it must have been hard for people who were born there to leave everything behind and come back to a country they didn’t really know. They seemed to miss their town, the climate, the plants, the food and many other things and to feel uprooted. Herma evokes a lost paradise and she was happy to go back to Indonesia for her work.

I suppose Hella S Haasse managed to describe the society of that time and the different attitudes of the Dutch settlers towards the upcoming changes. Some were so optimistic that it was almost stupidity. Some supported the natives in their fight. Some hoped to find a middle ground. I only assume it is a vivid picture of the end of colonialism because I found this book difficult to read for several reasons. My first problem was the characters. Dee’s family tree isn’t big but I had problems remembering who was the son, brother, sister or mother of whom. I suppose I’m not the only one who get confused since there is a family tree at the end of the book.

I know nothing about the history of Indonesia and I struggled to understand what happened before and after the independence. Hella S Haasse chose a non-chronological way to tell Herma and Dee’s story. Herma recalls specific moments and relates them. She goes back and forth in time and it really reproduces the way our mind works. She leaps from one memory to another, letting her mind wander. It’s certainly a good device from a literary point of view. But for an ignorant reader like me, it didn’t help learning something about Indonesia and put events in the right order.

As I’m not Dutch, I don’t know what happened to white people after Indonesia became independent. I assume they were shipped back to the Netherlands. I got that there was something about being a mixed-raced person. Some could choose to become Indonesian and stay there and others had to go, according to some criteria I didn’t catch. I suppose it is part of Dutch history as the fate of the Pied Noirs is part of French history. Without the Dutch background, I didn’t catch all the nuances and missed something about Herma and Dee’s relationship.

Then, there was the irritating constant use of Indonesian words in the text, sometimes several in one page. As a consequence, the translator added a lot of footnotes and it broke the flow of my reading. I understand that an Indonesian word is useful when it covers a notion or a reality without a French word for it. But why write becak when the word cyclo pousse (1) exists? Does that mean that cyclo pousse doesn’t exist in Dutch, leading Hella S Haasse to use the Indonesian word and then the translator to keep the Indonesian to remain faithful to the text? Or are these words commonly used by Dutch people like the French know some Arab words after the Pied Noirs came back to France?  

I think a foreword by the translator explaining the historical context would have been really helpful. I also wonder to what extend it is autobiographical. And then after those difficulties, there was the story. This is a friendship between two people who are very different in character, one really wild and rebel while the other is quiet and respectful of the established order. Rather common. It reminded me of The Last of the Savage by Jay McInerney and I already had a feeling of déjà-vu when I read this one.

All in all, I think it’s a good book in general but not for me in particular. Now I’m reading Max Havelaar and perhaps I should have read it before Sleutehoog. It could have helped for the historical context.

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