The Dinner begins with a classic set up scene – two sets of parents meeting in a restaurant to sort out serious problems with their two sons. I was reminded of the film Carnage in which Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster and their respective screen spouses meet to discuss a playground fight, but this story is much, much darker than that, and even more entertaining.
If anything its more similar to The Slap than to Carnage but its far more sophisticated than Christos Tsoiklas’s book and draws the reader into a complex web of dark secrets and hidden motives.
The two fathers, Paul and Serge Lohman are brothers. Paul narrates the story, revealing a troubled history with his brother, a prominent politician who stands a good chance of becoming the next Prime Minister. Paul has grown to dislike his brother intensely, particularly his pretentiousness, his self-regard and his obvious enjoyment of his celebrity.
As with all hatreds, it ends up manifesting itself in trivial annoyances: Paul loathes the way his bother shovels his food into his mouth, his name-dropping and his endless boasting about his house in the Dordogne. But then Paul’s contempt is sharpened by his own situation – he was a teacher but has been placed on the “inactive” list after a series of at first unspecified events. As the story unfolds, Paul gradually reveals a shocking history of his own which makes him a dubious narrator of the events the two couples have come to discuss.
A new novel from Portobello Books is always welcome – a guarantee of inventive and original writing, with Caesarion being a fine example of the type of fictional innovation we can expect from this imprint.
In Caesarion, Tommy Wieringa has written an inventive, multi-layered novel, charting the childhood and youth of Ludwig (the Ceasarion of the title), an Egyptian born boy with distinctly unusual parents. Poor Ludwig is let down by all the adults in his life, all of whom consistently chase their own chimeras rather than nurturing the growing boy. Luwig’s pet-name, Caesarion, (Little Ceasar) comes from the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, also born in Alexandria. Apart from this, there are few classical references in the book – a good thing for readers like me who’s knowledge of the Ancient World is not as great as it should be.
Ludwig grows up in Egypt. He has an absent father and a mother who seems to dote on him a little too much. When he watches her put on make-up he finds her applying a little rouge to his own cheeks, moving on to polish his nails.
I have been reading some fairly serious books lately covering themes of war and politics and feeling the need for something rather less demanding I decided to read Repatriated by Adriaan Van Dis (tr. David Colmer very ably from the original Dutch). I have now spent two or three days in 1950s North Holland, where sand-dunes fringe the endlessly flat polders, and tiny villages struggle to get back to normal life after the Second World War.
This is one of those quirky novels like Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which defies classification. At first I thought it was going to be a member of that genre that W H Smiths call “Tragic Childhoods”, but it is far from that, not least because it is essentially humorous (and also fictional).
The story focuses on an adolescent boy (un-named) and his father, Mr Java, who live with the boy’s mother and his three half-sisters. Mr Java has come to live in Holland with his family from the Dutch East Indies, and he daily inflicts his eccentricities on his family, especially “the boy”, until eventually reaching an absurd climax, which I won’t describe for fear of spoiling the novel for other readers.
Adriaan Van Dis has created a believable but unique world where the vastness of the landscape brings a microscopic concentration on everyday incidents making them rich with meaning. Mr Java lives life intensely and the smallest incident is interpreted for his son for its didactic value by means of highly eccentric personal reminiscences, political comment and historical meanderings. He keeps his son away from school because of his conviction he alone can provide a proper education for the boy. When the boy eventually is compelled to go to school by the authorities, he finds that nothing Mr Java has taught him is correct or reliable and he virtually has to start his education all over again.