Herman Koch’s novel deals with interesting topics, and it’s not a bad novel, I just can’t decide what Koch wanted with all this. (What could the poet have wanted to say? And if he wanted to say that, why didn’t he just go ahead and say it?)
Theoretically – I think – this is a novel about moral dilemmas with some cynical criticism about modern life as a side dish. After a while, though, it seems more like a rather terrifying and morbid story of insanity (something in the same vein as Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy) than a story about moral choices. I’ll get to why this bothers me, but first a bit about the story.
The framework of the novel is a dinner, during which two brothers and their wives – after a whole lot of sidetracks and deliberate avoidance of the topic – finally get to talk about the thing that’s on their mind. The question is this: what, if anything, should they do about the unfortunate situation that on a drunken night out, their kids (two boys of 15) killed a homeless woman who was sheltering in front of a cash machine and thus prevented the kids from being able to withdraw money?
During the conversation, the parents touch upon several serious and highly ambiguous topics. They discuss how much a homeless person’s life is worth compared to the life of an upper middle class boy; who might be accountable for the actions of a couple of underage boys; and whether parents are supposed to be punished for the actions of their children.
All this moralizing is a little bit too direct and not intriguing enough for me – what’s more interesting is the investigation of the motivations of the individual parents, and the question why some of the parents want to keep this event a secret, and why some of them want to come out in the open. And then there’s a kind of solution, which is, again, not too compelling.
And it’s not too compelling because as the story moves on, more and more emphasis is laid on the fact that the narrator, Paul (one of the fathers) suffers from some kind of mental illness, and the moral questions suddenly seem of secondary importance compared to his illness. I have mixed feelings about this. I partly feel that it’s a rather cheap solution to toss up all the big and serious ethical questions and then basically say: “But Paul is sick in the mind, so the questions aren’t even valid.” Partly, though, the depiction of Paul’s mental state is unsettling and terrifying, and being in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes is a truly uncomfortable literary experience (and this I mean positively).
Still – it might have been better (for me definitely) to choose between the ethical tale and the story of an insanity and write only one of them. It would have made for a stronger novel.