I like Herman Koch’s writing. I liked the moral dilemma of The Dinner, and Summer House With Swimming Pool which told a different story of misbehaving adults. The Ditch, however, meanders through several issues at once, meditatively enough to remind me of Javier Marias’ writing. One enjoys the book, while at the same time wondering if the plot will ever pull together.
Robert is the mayor of Amsterdam, married to a woman he calls Sylvia because he doesn’t want to disclose her true name, and thus her nationality, lest it prejudices our idea of who she is. He will only tell us she is from a country south and east of Holland, farther than France, and he leaves it at that. Spain? Could she be from Spain, or even farther, a place like Casablanca?
In what struck me as a rather paranoid perspective, he determines that his wife is having an affair after observing her at a party, across the room, throwing her head back in laughter as she converses with Alderman Maarten van Hoogstraten. There is nothing about her behavior which seems suspicious to me, but once the idea occurs to her husband, he can only embellish it in his mind.
Simultaneously, Robert has meetings with his ninety-five year old father who is planning his own death, feeling that he has lived all he wants to and anything more will be downhill.
“That’s the way things are in this country these days, son. When you want to die, they can’t wait to come help. But if you want to enjoy driving for another year, suddenly there are all kinds of ethical objections.”
Near the end of the novel, Robert and his twenty year old daughter discuss her boyfriend, whom she saw kissing another girl on the dance club floor. Diana tells her father that she wants to be the only one, no more looking at other girls, and if he can’t give that to her it’s over.
“Isn’t that sort of one-sided?” I began. “Aren’t you coming down on him a little too hard?”
This, from her father, a husband who has been suspicious of his wife since the novel began. Perhaps in the course of its 300-some pages he has come to see that relationships need flexibility and understanding.
It is never clear whether Sylvia was involved in an extramarital affair or not, nor, I suppose, does it matter very much. The point Koch is making, I think, is that when we love someone, we overcome any negative thoughts we may harbor concerning them. He concludes, “We don’t say much, more often we say nothing at all. We don’t talk as much as we used to. But we are together. We stand close together.”
That is all that really matters.