Author Herman Koch on his breakthrough novel becoming a Richard Gere movie
It was, truly, lost in translation, and not because the translator had done a half-arsed job. What a book means in one language, in one country, it seems can be wildly different to what it means somewhere else.
When Dutch actor, comedian and author Herman Koch wrote The Dinner in his native tongue in 2009 (since translated into 12 languages, selling 1 million copies in Europe alone and spawning an in-production movie version which will star Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney) it definitely seemed to capture a zeitgeist.
What that was, however, varied. "In my own country, they get it as more of a satire; in southern European countries, like Italy or Spain or Greece, it's like very serious social criticism," says Koch, on the phone from his home in Amsterdam. "In the US, they take if differently - they are sometimes shocked by the political incorrectness of the book and maybe they mistake the author with his character. I've become a lot more conscious of how differently a book can be interpreted."
In The Dinner, two couples gather at a fine-dining restaurant to discuss their sons, whom, it emerges, have murdered a homeless woman for the YouTubed thrill of it - and debate whether to protect or report their offspring. In Russia, reports Koch, readers felt it was natural not to go to the cops, because of their propensity for violence. In working-class areas of France, teenagers said how good it was that parents would defend their kids no matter what. He thinks the appeal is the book "pokes fun at political correctness" - certainly, its narrator, middle-class schoolteacher Paul Lohman begins as an apparently sane and rational thinker but soon reveals himself to be a prejudiced, violent and somewhat unhinged character.
The issues it touched on - European immigration, social media, lawless youth - seemed perfectly set for Koch to be invited on to all sorts of talking head panels to debate the state of morality in society or such. Not so much, he says, and "I wouldn't give my opinion even if they asked. I think my terrain is the novel. I have had a lot of different opinions expressed in a novel but I think writers should stay as far away from politics as possible."
He agrees, however, that he lives in interesting times. But even then, "I like to use it in my novels rather than to add to the political debate. Of course, I have my opinions, but they shouldn't filter through into a book. When a reader knows what a writer is thinking, it makes that fiction into bad fiction."
In Holland, Koch is however a bona-fide celebrity: a celebrated actor and comedian in their version of Spitting Image and the Dutch version of Footballers' Wives: "I did some acting, but it was never my ambition: I started as a novelist, and went and did a few years of television, but I was always primarily an author," he says. He has an extended back catalogue of books, but despite all this, not until about three years ago would there be any chance you would have heard of him.
The Dinner was his first work to really break through, something he attributes to growing domestic sales pushing his publishers to get it translated - his follow-up, Summer House with Swimming Pool, had the same treatment.
He doesn't write the translations, despite speaking and writing Spanish, German and English competently. "I never read a whole translation; I read some chapters, and when I do, it appears almost like the work of a different writer," he says. "Sometimes, I go on reading and think 'well this isn't so bad, this is actually quite good'. And the funny thing is it feels more real when it is in English. I think you can take your own work more seriously when suddenly you see a cover in English."
But Koch doesn't seem agitated that there is a library of his work inaccessible to the English-speaking world. Because he leaves so little time between novels - he's delivering one every two years - he reckons he can't expect his publisher to go back and translate his back catalogue. All his recent ones, however, are duly translated. His next, Dear Mr M, a story of an older author confronted by a reader who thinks the author has used his own story in one of his novels, is due out here in August: the translation is already finished. And when Koch completes a novel, he grants himself two months off, but backslides. "Always, after two weeks, I am trying out something new. Then I get addicted to writing every day. But I am very far from being a workaholic: I only work for a few hours a day, but I like those few hours: it's like running or swimming, something I like to do. So why should I take a holiday from it?"
Coming here, then, this week for the Auckland Readers' Festival to speak at three events, is the sort of busman's holiday of which he approves. "I think it's a luxury to call it work," he says. "I wouldn't. I'm always travelling after the translation of my books, so I think really, it's a luxurious sort of problem to have."
Herman Koch appears at the Auckland Readers Festival this week. Dear Mr M is released later this year by Text Publishing.