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Book Talk: A family dinner, fraught with dark secrets

TOKYO, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in Amsterdam. One brother is a politician, the other a former history teacher who seethes with resentment that he hides behind manners.
/ Source: Reuters

TOKYO, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in Amsterdam. One brother is a politician, the other a former history teacher who seethes with resentment that he hides behind manners.

But as the meal in Dutch writer Herman Koch's novel "The Dinner" goes on, the masks come off and knives come out as the two families' sons are revealed to share a dark secret - and each family tries to protect its own.

A former actor on a television comedy show, Koch spoke with Reuters about his book, which has just appeared in the United States, unreliable narrators and telling stories.

Q: Doing the book around an entire dinner is a fascinating idea. What inspired this?

A: At the beginning I was thinking, let's have the challenge of trying to write a novel of about 200 to 300 pages and it takes place in a restaurant and we only have conversation. I was thinking to make it like a menu, this was the first idea and I had the first two sentences already. Then there was a real event in Barcelona in 2005 of two boys who did more or less what the two boys in the book have done, the difference being that they were filmed and recognized by the CCTV cameras and arrested the next day. But the remarkable thing was that these two boys weren't skinheads, they weren't tattooed and they weren't wearing the wrong kind of leather jackets, they were really looking just like very nice boys, like the boy next door, 15 to 16 years old. Then I thought, this could be my son, so it could be anybody's son.

Q: What was hardest about writing this book, and what was easiest, what was the most fun?

A: The hardest thing I think was that I didn't know what would happen, that's how I write novels in general. I start with an idea, but I really didn't know what would happen... So this is the kind of thing I try to do all the time, but sometimes you feel a bit lost. When I'm writing, I think, what's going to happen next. In the end, it's like plotting - I don't do a lot of plotting, I always think, what's going to happen in the next chapter.

Q: Why don't you plot things out in advance?

A: I think I do it because in the past, my intuition has proven to just make the right plot. And if you plot something in advance, it might happen that you force yourself to follow your plot. Also, it's a guarantee against (being) boring - I mean, boring myself with just filling in all the things I have invented beforehand. This boredom could be transmitted to the reader. I always remember one thing Stephen King once said in his book on writing. He said, 'I never know beforehand who is the killer, because when I know it, the reader knows it as well.' There's some conscious thing there. I think if you know where you're going, the reader also knows beforehand where you're going.

Of course, this is not a thriller, it's not important whodunit. It's a literary novel where you think what might happen next, and how are you going to solve this problem.

Q: One of the interesting thing here is that it's in the first person - and that raises the question of reliable narrators.

A: It's what I most like in novels - not only mine, but also other people - the unreliable narrator. In this book, he's more unreliable than most. But I think any other person who tells us a story - in a bar, in a dinner at our place - is unreliable, because everybody presents something. He tells you a story about a vacation and a holiday, and some adventure, but you never know what is true, and we all exaggerate. I completely exaggerated in this novel, thinking, well, he's telling us all the time 'I won't tell you what illness this is, this is private, this is privacy.'

Q: So why should we trust anybody? Why should we read books?

A: Ah well, because a story can be interesting. I myself when I'm telling a story to a friend of something that happened to me, I say well, I was in London the other day, you know what happened? Then I know I am already being unreliable. I know that something will go into it that makes it less important to tell what really happened, and more important to tell a good story. I think this goes for anybody. If you say 'this happened to me, I don't know why,' it's a boring story.

Q: I understand you were once an actor, what did acting teach you about writing?

A: I was never an actor in a television series or movies with lines or text written by other people. I had with two friends a comedy show on television, and we wrote our own stuff. Mostly what it taught me was to invent a character on television who also speaks in the first person, because when somebody talks on the camera he's a first person narrator.

The important thing I realized is that I have to know how this person talks - not so much what he is or how he's going to tell things, but how he is talking to us.

Q: Have you sat through dinners like this?

A: Oh yes, I think so. I don't know of a real example. It reminds me, of course, that one of the reasons that I chose to have it take place in a restaurant is that you don't leave before the bill is paid, you don't leave before the coffee is served. So if this conversation had taken place in a home, well, maybe there would be a lot more shouting and fighting, and maybe people would leave angry. But in a restaurant you have to stay, and you have to talk...

Of course I've been in dinners like this. And of course you think, 'Oh my God, I shouldn't have come. I should have left.' But you can't. (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)