It seems to be a Dutch national record: Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner reaching the ninth position on the New York Times bestseller list. While the Times’ own reviewer Janet Maslin called the morality of the story “sickening” and its characters “indigestible,” The Economist praised it, saying that “[The Dinner] proves how powerful fiction can be in illuminating the modern world.”
Either sickening or illuminating, Koch’s book is an international success. With Koch climbing the U.S. bestseller lists, it’s time to take a closer look at some newly translated Dutch fiction.
The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett
Praised in the Netherlands, the U.K., and now the U.S., The Dinner is Herman Koch’s breakthrough novel. In the Netherlands, Koch is still first and foremost known as one of the makers of the satirical television series Jiskefet; only in recent years has he gained popularity as a novelist.
The Dinner is loosely based on the story of the murder of a homeless woman in Barcelona in 2005, set on fire by three “respectable” young men, children of The Dinner’s main characters, who are prominent politicians. Over the titular dinner, they must discuss the crime their sons committed. It has been recorded by a security camera and aired on national television in order to find the perpetrators, and so far their parents are the only ones who have recognized them. How loyal, the book asks, should parents be towards their children?
The Dinner isn’t a thriller in the usual sense of the word, because it’s not a real whodunit, but one could definitely call it a psychological thriller. Koch has a great talent for creating and maintaining tension in a storyline.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett
Tirza is a story about the obsessive love of a father for his daughter and is one of the most renowned novels by Amsterdam-born, New York City resident Arnon Grunberg, who debuted as a novelist in 1994 and has since created a vast oeuvre of fiction, literary journalism, essays, and stage plays.
Tirza revolves around Jörgen Hofmeester, for whom things aren’t going very well: he lost his job as an editor and all his savings after investing in a hedge fund. His wife left him, but suddenly returns after three years, shortly before their daughter Tirza is about to move out after graduating from high school.
Tirza is the apple of Hofmeester’s eye, and he can’t let her go. When Tirza introduces her boyfriend Choukri to him, Choukri’s strong resemblance to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta occurs to Hofmeester, who starts to regard him as his “personal terrorist.” Later on, Tirza announces that she and Choukri want to travel to Africa. The three of them spend a weekend together at a farmhouse in the Dutch countryside before Hofmeester drops them off at the Frankfurt airport. The story reaches its apotheosis when Hofmeester, after not having heard from Tirza for a few weeks, travels to Namibia to look for her.
Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer
Just before he turned 44, Gerbrand Bakker surprised the world with his literary debut The Twin, which was published in 2006. The novel was highly praised, both in the Netherlands and abroad – it won him the Impac Dublin Literary Award among other prizes.
Ten White Geese, Bakker’s third novel, is mainly set in the Welsh countryside, during the months of November and December, where a woman from Amsterdam has left a painful situation to start all over again. As things develop in Wales — of the ten white geese to which the title refers, only four remain after two months — her husband, back home in Amsterdam, contacts the police and tries to find answers. On the day before Christmas, he and a policeman get on a ferry to the other side of the Channel, and the two story lines come together.
Ten White Geese has also been praised by both Dutch and international literary critics, especially for Bakker’s economical style and his descriptions of nature. There’s a lot that Bakker deliberately leaves unclear so that the reader can interpret the story on his own. In other words: in Bakker’s novels, nothing much happens, and that’s what makes them so powerful.
Little Caesar by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett
Tommy Wieringa wrote Little Caesar after gaining fame with his breakthrough novel Joe Speedboat. Both novels read like a fictional life story. Little Caesar chronicles the story of Ludwig Unger, son of a destructive artist and a porn star (Wieringa based this character on Jeff Koons’s and Ilona Staller’s son).
Little Caesar received mixed reviews after Joe Speedboat was unanimously hailed by the literary critics. Perhaps it was the constant comparison to its predecessor that made the critics doubt Little Caesar’s quality: while Joe Speedboat was mostly set in a rural Dutch village, Little Caesar has a great deal of symbolism and a story in which the protagonist travels all around the world. However, Wieringa still shows his quality as a literary craftsman, with a wonderful sense of style and tone, as we follow Ludwig – mostly in flashbacks after he returns to the British coastal town where he grew up – trying to cope with his difficult relationship with his mother and his quest to find his father in the Southern American jungle.