Saturday, May 26, 2018
Cooking

Read & Feed: Veal and tuna for 'The Dinner' by Herman Koch

Book: Paul, the caustic narrator who left his job as a high school history teacher after complaints from parents, has accepted a dinner invitation from his older brother, Serge, the opposition leader in the Dutch Parliament who is expected to become the next Prime Minister. They rendezvous with their wives at one of the most expensive restaurants in Amsterdam and make nice with each other as dinner progresses leisurely from the aperitif through the main course, with Paul sharing his nasty observations only with the reader. He labels his brother "a yokel, a boorish lout," for example, and silently sneers at the "vast emptiness" on the plate of food served to his wife. "That part of the plate on which no food at all was present had clearly been raised to a matter of principle," he says.

Before dessert, however, the conversation turns to their teenage children, and the apparent involvement of two of them in a terrible crime, which was recorded on grainy video that has gone viral. The laughter stops, and tears begin. What should they do about this problem?

Why read? The Dinner by Dutch writer Herman Koch has been a sensation in Europe, selling more than a million copies, and the English translation should do well in this country given the American fondness for cranky, unreliable narrators. (Imagine Holden Caulfield as a middle-aged man.) The novel's deeper themes — the random violence that has become so common in American society, for example, and the tendency of parents to dote on their children — should resonate too. Even the figure of a pompous, manipulative politician with designs on the nation's highest elective office, who saws his own firewood and frequently appears in news photos with his wife and three children (one adopted from Africa) should be familiar to Americans.

Ultimately, however, the book rests on the conflicts that erupt within each of these parents, who must weigh their instinct to protect their children against society's demand for justice. What should they do? And should responsibility for a crime be mitigated by the brain chemistry of the perpetrator? Or is an evil act the act of an evil person?

Koch, through Paul's narration, manages to express plenty of strong opinions about high cuisine, but he provides no simple answers when it comes to morality. Instead, he deftly provokes readers to examine their own values, and imagine what they would do in similar circumstances.

Make it: Knowing his brother will pick up the tab, Paul orders the Vitello Tonnato — chilled veal, thinly sliced and covered with smooth, cold sauce made from tuna, anchovies and capers. The combination of cold veal and a cold sauce made out of tuna may sound incongruous, and contribute to Paul's status as a bitter eccentric, but Vitello Tonnato is actually a delightful warm-weather dish that always tastes much better than it sounds.

Tom Valeo, Times correspondent

Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.

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