#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE DITCH by Herman Koch

In his international bestseller and first novel in English translation, The Dinner (2012), Herman Koch meticulously exposed the hypocrisies at the heart of middle-class society; in The Ditch, his fourth and latest novel in English, he turns his analytical gaze onto personal relationships, and the famed Dutch reputation for tolerance.

Koch has a way of unsettling the reader with the sheer simplicity of a narrative of everyday occurrences; as in The Dinner, in The Ditch in particular, he underpins the credibility of his characters and the events in their lives with anecdotes involving real people. Here François Hollande and Barack Obama, for example, appear in ‘real-life’ situations with Robert Walter, the book’s protagonist and narrator, and the story takes on a new, utterly believable dimension.

‘François Hollande winked at me. He had turned his head to follow the tall blonde girl with the serving tray … in that moment, it was not the French president on a state visit to Amsterdam who was winking at me, but … the enamoured president … who slipped out at night … to pay a secret visit to his lover.’

Robert Walter is the mayor of Amsterdam, a man of the world and especially the political world, a public figure with practised skills that are key to his job. He can spot boredom a mile off, manipulate meetings, say what people want him to say, deal with foreign dignitaries without a second thought. And, with his world-weary arrogance, he knows it: ‘It’s tiring to be the obvious pivot in almost every group. The motor behind every conversation … it’s just my day-to-day reality.’

He has a beautiful wife, Sylvia, whom he adores, and a lovely daughter, Diana. He does not though use their real names when discussing them: in ‘Sylvia’s’ case, because she is from an unnamed country far to the south of Holland, about which the Dutch have ‘preconceived notions, both favourable and unfavourable’. The Dutch, he points out, are full of such prejudices, about Belgians, French, Germans, never mind that unnamed country. As for ‘Diana’, as the mayor’s daughter, she is entitled to her privacy.

But then, out of nowhere, this confident, well-adjusted family man is thrown totally off balance by a light touch on the elbow at a New Year’s party: not his elbow, but Sylvia’s, and not by him, but by one of his aldermen, an unappealing provincial by the name of van Hoogstraaten, who is telling her an apparently amusing story. Suddenly, Walter is overcome with suspicion: van Hoogstraaten and his wife are having an affair …

It seems implausible – that touch is the only evidence, but it’s enough to turn Walter into a domestic secret agent:

‘I went undercover in my own home. From behind my newspaper I kept a close watch on my wife … From the tiniest shifts in my wife’s behaviour, I was trying to deduce whether my worst fears were based in the truth.’

Are Sylvia’s openness and good humour the real thing, or just ‘a five-star performance’? Koch’s exposition of Walter’s descent into raging doubt and fear is as good as it gets. His insecurity was clearly always there, the self-assurance just a front, his time as mayor, we discover, plagued by a lack of any real progress.

Into all this, Koch injects some penetrating reflections on racial and social differences and stereotypes; profound thoughts on fascism and democracy, on what he calls the new ‘eco-fascism’, and on how charismatic leaders rarely win power through popular choice: ‘Wherever people are given an opportunity for public comment, you get ugliness. Not just ugly buildings, but ugly, nondescript politicians.’ This is gripping stuff, every bit as compelling as the vicious circle of Walter’s conjugal suspicions. But then, other narrative strands come into play: his parents’ impending deaths, his relationship with his best friend, in which he was somehow always second best, and an event in his past that could turn into a public scandal. These are the real problems Walter faces, for which his wife’s presumed affair is a convenient psychological displacement activity.

Sadly, as the story progresses, Herman Koch doesn’t manage to meld these various strands into a convincing whole: they just don’t hang together. The analytical insight he brings to Robert Walter’s jealousy is dissipated in the final third of the book. The old prejudices about Sylvia’s unnamed country are laid bare, but in the end, the resolution of the story, in which the significance of the ‘ditch’ becomes clear, doesn’t work for me: it is a dying fall, a whimper, which left me wondering: why?

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE DITCH

Written by Herman Koch

Translated by Sam Garrett

Published by Picador (2019)

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Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: March 2021 – The Dutch RiveterReviews

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