By Herman Koch
THERE'S a moment in Michael Haneke's 1997 Austrian film, Funny Games, in which the violent young intruders, having already killed the family's dog, begin to bicker childishly between themselves. It's a moment of almost Seinfeld absurdity.
The same futility scratches at the heart of Dutch writer Herman Koch's brilliant novel The Dinner, which was first released in Holland in 2009. Koch is the author of seven other novels. This is the first English translation of his work published in Australia.
The Dinner opens with Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, heading to a gourmet restaurant in The Hague. They've been summoned to dinner by Babette and her husband, Serge, Paul's brother and the man tipped to be the next prime minister of Holland. Paul can't stand Serge, who embodies Dutch aspiration - all those bourgeois sensibilities, the dapper looks; he's even adopted a boy from Africa, Beau, who is now a teenager.
The Dinner is a masterful, disturbing piece of theatre. Like acts in a play, the novel is divided into parts: ''Appetiser'', ''Main Course'', ''Dessert'' and ''Digestive''.
This lends artificiality to the narrative. But it's an effective technique; the detachment adds another layer of disquiet. Koch teases his reader, lining up clues and introducing doubts. ''It's like … when someone leaves a pistol during the first act,'' Paul muses, ''you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That's the law of drama.''
The smoking gun in this case is a mobile phone belonging to Michel, Paul and Claire's teenage son. Paul looks through the phone the night of the dinner to find a video revealing Michel and his cousin Rick, Serge and Babette's other son taking part in an act of sickening criminality.
As the novel progresses, you realise that Paul isn't exactly a reliable narrator. Like Tom Stall in A History of Violence, he has his own vicious past. Sprinkled through his story are sadistic tangents.
Paul becomes increasingly unhinged, perceiving small incursions as deserving of violent retribution - a fist slammed into ''inquisitive, spoiled mouths, knuckles hard against the front teeth, breaking them off close to the root'', for example.
While simple in its structure and narrative scope, The Dinner is stylish and textured with other commentary. Clever swipes are taken at the gormless middle-class holidaying in the Dordogne every summer, as well as the country's education and mental-health systems. There's also insight into the delicate fabric of multiculturalism recently picked apart by the rise of the far-right Party for Freedom.
But the perspectives of these critiques are shifting and you soon find yourself not knowing who to trust. Serge is charming yet self-interested; Babette is aloof and disengaged with those around her; Claire, we assume, is the novel's moral compass, a voice of objectivity, of reason - the woman, Paul claims, ''who represented happiness to me. Without my wife I would have been nowhere''.
Yet she slowly reveals herself as the most terrifying character, ruthless in protecting her son. The measure of her complicity is reminiscent of Eva Khatchadourian in Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk about Kevin.
And, of course, there is the obscenity of the meal itself: the decadence of all that food and wine, coffee and grappa; the bill that ''makes you burst out laughing''. That this story unfolds serenely in a restaurant is most disturbing. It's a telling reflection of a society obsessed with food.
There's not much pleasure for Koch's characters in the restaurant, however - no lingering over the cuisine and its flavours. Medication has muted Paul's for some time, an essential restraint of his dangerous personality. ''That was how I saw life sometimes,'' he reflects forlornly, ''like a plate of warm food sitting getting cold.''
■Rebecca Starford is the associate publisher at Affirm Press and editor and co-founder of Kill Your Darlings.