“The Dinner” &《生死疲勞》

From an email originally written on Mar. 26, 2013 :


I found the email below that I sent more than half a year ago … I’ve just finished reading the internationally popular novel called “The Dinner” by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. It’s published in 2009 in Netherlands but US only has the translation now/this year. This novel reminds me of the movie “Carnage” where parents were also trying to protect their children (but against one another’s son, rather than hiding both children’s sin in this novel). The stories are completely different but they share the same theme. It exposes the hypocrisy of the so-called civilized society. There is evil everywhere but people just try to hide it — hence civilization.

At the beginning of this book, I like the narrator Paul Lohman for his being very cynical about dining in “top restaurants” such as the the process of approving a bottle of wine (p. 39-40) and “vast emptiness of the plate” (p. 43-44). Because I’ve felt the same ! Nevertheless, gradually and especially towards the end, we could see that Paul, suffering from certain unnamed neurotic disorder, had horrible violent tendency which got transferred to his son, probably both hereditarily and empirically.

This is not a detective story but the readers are kept in dark and the (surprising) twists have to come gradually. The ATM machine “accident” was probably the first surprise and then it was the revelation of the Paul’s neurotic disorder that started to tell us that what he expressed about some people deserving to be killed might not be just his personal philosophy. After that, the readers seem to expect further news/surprises/twists ….

I do wonder whether the author has the intention to make us think whether some people do deserve to die ! Towards the end, we realize that this novel is very dark. How much the parents were willing to do in order to protect their children were just horrifying ! Claire implied to his son Michel that they (Michel & Rick) could get rid of/kill Beau when they couldn’t talk reason to him (p. 271) ?!

Let me provide another comparison : a long novel (600+ pages with very dense character arrangement) called 《生死疲勞》(“Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out”) written by the Nobel Laureate 莫言 (“Mo Yan”, 2006)。I’ve noticed his novels in the shelf in the Flushing library before but I didn’t go to read it partly because I had tried to avoid Mainland Chinese novels. But Nobel Prize makes people like me curious. It’s also easy to pick Nobel works when you’re facing unknown works by unknown writers. So with some hesitation, I’ve read two novels of his,《娃》(“Frog”) and《生死疲勞》, the latter of which has also been recommended by 莫言 himself as the first to read for his new readers.

《生死疲勞》 covers a 50 years+ history of a village in China starting from 1950. The typical land reform, “Great Leap Forward” or Cultural Revolution are all there but there was no mention of “Beijing Spring” and 1989 … It’s a novel (not history) but I feel that the people seem to be in the supporting roles whereas the history seems to be the main subject. Just as in maybe many other Mainland Chinese novels, the Chinese citizens were described as stupid followers, following and adjusting to the policies of the central Communist govt. Probably only one supporting character called 藍臉 (“Blue Face”) has a memorable character and face ! He has insisted not to join the commune farm — he was right as the farm became privatized gradually after 1980’s. For all other characters in the novel, no matter how many words the author has used to depict them, you don’t feel that they really have their own individualism.

The contrast between 《生死疲勞》 and “The Dinner” is the lack and fullness of individualism. In “The Dinner”, selfishness and individualism is the main theme or about the only subject ! I kind of feel that even in the novels, individuals are not “respected” by the Chinese writers. Somehow, the last Mainland Chinese novel 《他的國》(“His Kingdom”) I read many months ago by 韩寒 (“Han Han”) had suffered from similar feature. 《娃》has just about the same problem or feature, I’d say.

In “The Dinner”, everything is through the eyes of the narrator (Paul Lohman) and the reader seems to be getting at the most detailed illustration of how one thinks. Everything is analyzed to the death and it’s an exposition of one’s thought process …. But in 《生死疲勞》, individuals seem to give way to the country. Mostly, the country or its history is the main character. Epic story doesn’t necessarily need to be like that. In the famous example of “War and Peace”, I think we read the conspicuous individual character on top of history where history is the backdrop. Though Tolstoy told/taught us that history is a continuous integration of human behavior and though each one is infinitesimal in terms of history, each individual still needs to exist for history to exist. ( Without any “differential” or differential=0, integration is 0. )  While reading《生死疲勞》, one often feels that one doesn’t really care about the characters. I feel more for the characters even when I read 亦舒’s (Yi Shu’s) novels (which are almost always much shorter).

Maybe, I exaggerate the difference but I do feel that there is an implicit difference that I wonder whether the author is consciously aware of.

In my probably arrogant but honest opinion, 莫言 being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature just shows that many Chinese writers could/can have obtained the Prize. It’s like when Lee and Yang were awarded the first Nobel Prize (at least Yang was not US citizen in ~1957 !), it proves that ethnic Chinese were not that stupid such that Chinese would never obtain Physics Nobel Prize.

“The Dinner” makes you think quite a bit after you finish reading it in a way that 《生死疲勞》 is not even getting close to.


On 08/11/2012 10:23 PM, Yip, Kin wrote:

This is yet another unusual (at least to me !) movie (from Roman Polanski)… Essentially for the entire movie of 80 (or more like 75) minutes, the 4 actors are all in the same apartment (and mostly in the same dining room really), just talking, or sometimes yelling etc. ( It’s adapted from a play. )

The two pair of couples met because they were the parents of an incident that one kid hurt the other kid. They tried to act in a civilized way such that they didn’t seem to take their own son’s sides … But of course, this is all hypocrisy and gradually the true feeling came out as the movie went on. It’s kind of unbelievable that the couple of Kate Winslet and Christoph Walt failed to leave so many times that they’ve meant to leave — it’s in a way funny ! They should have killed each after staying in the same room for such a long time.

I like what the movie shows — people being nice to each other are just all superficial ! All those “you’re nice, we’re nice and everybody is nice” mode of chit-chat in social gathering is just hypocritical. I’ve long hated any kind of social gathering … we should just disagree and let each other know that we can’t stand with each other and part our separate ways. This reminds me that I feel the best when I’m alone as I need to pretend the least.

— After finishing watching this movie, I immediately went to check the filming location of this movie. Because this movie pretended to be in an apartment in New York City but I know R. Polanski couldn’t be in US (due to the fact that he his conviction of statutory rape in US and he is still “at large”). It’s in ~Paris.

— Not sure whether I’m affected by the knowledge that Jodie Foster is a lesbian, Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet are definitely two different kind of women … that Kate would give some kind of sexual appeal — who can be someone you want to sleep with no or little aid of imagination. But this doesn’t work for Jodie Foster. Call me crazy ……..



About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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