We recently spent ten days in The Netherlands and thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, two very different cities united by their easy-going feel and superb transport systems. Pedestrians, bikes and trams are given just as high a status as cars, and the result is a thoroughly civilized and less polluted urban experience. That and regular portions of apple pie with whipped cream made for a very pleasant trip.
While there, I read Herman Koch‘s bestseller The Dinner (Het Diner), which was published in 2009 and has been translated into over twenty languages. It was an interesting reading experience, as the image it presented of Dutch society felt totally at odds with the tolerant and relaxed society I was seeing around me.
The Dinner (trans. by Sam Garrett, Atlantic Books, 2012) depicts the events of one evening, interspersed with flashbacks, during which brothers Paul and Serge Lohman and their wives Claire and Babette meet for a posh dinner in Amsterdam. While seemingly two affluent and civilized couples enjoying gourmet food, the truth is somewhat different: the purpose of their meeting is to discuss how to deal with their teenage sons, who recently committed a shocking crime. No one yet knows the identity of the culprits, and so the question is how to proceed. Needless to say, there is some disagreement among the four, which ends up casting the Dutch middle classes in a rather unfavourable light.
Like the novellas of French author Pascal Garnier, The Dinner reveals the savagery lurking beneath the civilized exterior of polite society, its capacity for violence when threatened, and its willingness to sacrifice others in order to protect its own. While a targeted critique of Dutch society, the novel also raises plenty of questions about class, parenting, family relations, moral choices, the individual’s capacity for violence, the nature vs nurture debate, and the fragility of liberal values. It’s a compelling and unsettling read.
A Dutch film adaptation of The Dinner appeared in 2013, and Cate Blanchett is set to make her directorial debut with an English-language adaptation soon.
Reading Koch’s work has whetted my appetite for more Dutch crime fiction. In particular, I’ve got my eyes on Harry Mulisch’s The Assault (1985), a hybrid crime novel that explores the repercussions of a resistance assassination in occupied Holland in 1945. (Mulisch is one of The Netherland’s best-known writers and died aged 83 in 2010 – see his obituary here). An excellent CrimeTime overview of Dutch crime fiction has also given me some useful pointers – ‘Crime Scene: The Netherlands’.
Dear Mrs P
If you are looking for more Dutch crime fiction, you might also consider Saskia Noort. There are some similarities with Koch as she also gets under the skin of Dutch society, especially in her novel ‘The Dinner Club’.
Many thanks for your engaging and informative blog.
Thanks for your comment and the recommendation, Jamie. I’ve heard of Saskia Noort’s work and she’s definitely on my list. I’ve just had a look at The Dinner Club and it does look like there’s a similar set of themes being tackled there as in Koch’s work, but published just a little earlier.
Dear Mrs P,
Thank you for this great tip on Harry Mulisch. Just ordered The Assault which sounds intriguing. I’ve only read Janwillem van de Wetering’s books with De Gier and Grijpstra (sp?) and love to find a new Dutch author. Pie looks delish by the way!
You’re welcome, Cara. The Assault looks incredibly interesting, doesn’t it? I’m really looking forward to reading it and think Mulisch might be a writer that I’d like to find out about more generally. He sounds like a very complex figure.
The pie was indeed delish and all too more-ish! I have brought the recipe back with me and will have a go at recreating it.
Hello Mrs. P – I have just returned to Canada from my own holiday, visiting family in your usual area of abode! I was given a copy of “The Assault” by a good Dutch friend, and it is a very interesting, and thought-provoking, book. I am sure you’ll enjoy it when you have time to read it.
Hello Cathy! I hope you had a good trip and I’m sorry to have missed you.
Good to hear your view on The Assault. From what I’ve read I can imagine that it will raise lots of interesting questions, especially about the unintended consequences of political resistance/opposition. Will hopefully get to it soon.
Mrs. P – So glad you had a good trip! And thank you for your thoughtful and interesting discussion of The Dinner. It is, I agree, a fascinating and unusual look at Dutch society. If I may, may I also suggest Simone Van der Vlugt’s The Reunion? It’s a thoughtful and sometimes unsettling look at social culture, especially the culture of bullying.
Hello Margot – thanks very much for this recommendation. The Reunion looks very good and I’ve added it to my TBR pile. There does seem to be a common ‘feel’ to these more contemporary Dutch crime novels: the word ‘unsettling’ seems to pop up quite regularly! It’ll be interesting to read some more.
All the books sound fascinating. Since I’m now intimidated by my TBR lists and stacks of books, I’ll wait and enjoy the reviews of Dutch crime fiction.
I’m fascinated by the point of the unintended consequences of resistance. Of course, that happens, even over here. Even now with opposition to police brutality in several cities. And I’m sure it was rampant during and after WWII. But necessary nevertheless. What would have happened without the Resistance in so many countries? Brave heroes them all.
But what interests me is that pie. I would have eaten pie all the way through the Netherlands had I seen this. That may have led to vigorous bike riding — or the other way around!
Absolutely, Kathy – WW2 resistance must have been horrifically complex for those involved: either you don’t act, in which case repressive abuses continue, or you act, but risk consequences such as reprisals. I’m very interested to see how Mulisch tackles the moral complexities of that situation.
As for the pie: I ate as much as I could lay my hands on and loved every bite. The Dutch seem to enjoy their food lots, but are impressively trim and healthy-looking. I do credit the bike-riding with that to a great extent – everyone seems to do it, from the very young to the very old, and it must help to keep them fit as a nation.
Oooh what dreamy holidays! I love the Hello Kitty on the Dutch apple pie. But it looks like it tasted horribly, so next time you find yourself in front of one, allow us to take such a sacrifice in your name! Now I’m hungry…
🙂 You’re very sweet to sacrifice yourself in this way!
Now after reading all the comments I would like to say our ‘ appelgebakje met slagroom’ is to die for.. I hope you had some of our snacks: ‘bitterballen’ and saté met pindasaus (peanut sauce) and if course Indonesian nasi ! Back to books….. The Assault is very good. Suspense, fast paced and gives the reader an idea of what the Dutch experienced under German occupation. Koch is the spotlight and Geachte heer M. ( Dear Mr M. I’m sure this is translated ) is his new book, psychological crime thriller! I read Pastorale 1943 ( review is on my blog dd 23 January 2014) by Simon Vestdijk. Another great read about the local Dutch resistance in a small village. No one was really sure if the neighbour could be trusted….Germans everywhere. Happy you enjoyed The Netherlands … a clean, efficient public transport, safe country with great museums: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh museum and Hermitage in Amsterdam and the remodelled Mauritshuis in The Hague…just reopened!
Well, N@ncy, we actually did really well and sampled everything that you mentioned. We had to waddle on to the train home!
I saw Koch’s new novel (Heer M) being extensively promoted in bookshops while we were there. He’s clearly a leading name. Thanks also for the pointer about Pastorale 1943 – I’ll head over and read your post in a minute. Another one for my research list, thank you!
We really loved the Netherlands and would visit again in a heartbeat. We didn’t take in many museums this time – there was so much to do out and about – but that gives us a reason to return a few more times…