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Book Talk: Novelist, comedian Koch decries loss of risk-taking

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch writer and comedian Herman Koch's novel "Summerhouse with Swimming Pool" follows hot on the heels of "The Dinner", a study of racism, madness and death in an outwardly respectable middle-class family which proved a surprise international hit.

Due to be published in English in June, "Summerhouse with Swimming Pool" tells the story of a wealthy, successful and embittered doctor who treats everybody who is anybody in Amsterdam's cultural elite. It is written with the same savage humor that made its predecessor such a success.

"The Dinner", already a film in Dutch, is in the early stages of being made into a Hollywood movie directed by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who won the best actress Oscar on Sunday for her role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine".

Koch spoke to Reuters at the Hague Writers Unlimited Festival about "The Dinner," his subsequent novels, and how he looks back nostalgically at the risk-taking, smoking days of his youth.

Q: What was it about "The Dinner" that you think made it so popular around the world?

A: Parents are always curious about what their children are up to when they're not around. It's universal for parents to ask themselves how drunk their daughter is when she's not with them. We're also always curious about people's hidden lives: the next-door neighbor with the cats might seem very nice. But maybe he's a serial killer or something?

Q: Are you exploring themes that are specifically Dutch or are they more universal?

A: These themes are particularly easy to explore in the Netherlands, where most forms of discrimination are such a taboo that people are reluctant to talk about them. I was playing with the idea of a politically correct Social Democrat politician who suddenly found that his principles are put to the test in his private life - what does he do?

Q: What is it about writing novels that appeals to you?

A: The interesting thing about writing for me is that I know I can very easily be persuaded to change my mind. In a novel, you can hold every opinion on a subject simultaneously, using different characters to advance opposing opinions. You can weave all your own doubts into the storyline. If I'm writing a character who opposes euthanasia - something I believe in - I want to give that character all the credit in the world, so he can't be ridiculed.

Q: What's your next novel to appear in English?

A: "Summerhouse with Swimming Pool", appearing in June, is about an Amsterdam doctor who's bored sick after having treated his patients for 30 years. One of his many famous patients, an actor, suddenly dies. In the first chapter this doctor tells us that he faces prosecution because of the medical error that killed his patient.

Q: Your books are very critical of Dutch society, addressing people's fears about topics from tolerance to euthanasia and healthcare.

A: In my next book, "Dear Mr M.", which is about to appear in Dutch, I have a scene where two characters lament that the world used to talk about how progressive the Dutch were when it came to things like drugs, euthanasia and gay marriage.

Now, they complain the world only talks about Holland's right-wing extremists. And of course this really bothers them, because it makes them wonder if this tolerance was the only sellable thing the Dutch had.

When we say we are tolerant, what we're really saying is that we are superior to the person we're tolerating: starting from the border with France and eastwards, we're saying it's all a jungle, and we have a better-organized society.

It's like we've had to grow up as that image of the tolerant Netherlands faded. We have finally realized that we might be just as afraid of foreigners as everybody else.

Q: The world sees the Netherlands as this haven of tolerance and liberalism - has it become more conservative?

A: Something has been lost. We grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when smoking and heavy drinking were better regarded than going for a jog. Now it's the other way round. Me too: I quit smoking 15 years ago, and I've taken up running. This idea of living a high-risk life, dying young - that's lost everywhere, not just in Holland.

Occasionally, I see news of a riot, of a party advertised on Facebook and going wrong when hordes of teenagers swamp the village, and I think: "Finally, something fun is happening again!"

I'd never be such a good writer if I hadn't smoked. I needed that experience of taking risks and not worrying about preserving my health. But I certainly miss it. I occasionally discuss with my wife taking up smoking again if we're ever diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The characters in "Summerhouse in Swimming Pool" are smoking all the time. It's a way of vicariously smoking while I write.

It's not just smoking. Once, all writers were alcoholics, and now even Haruki Murakami goes out jogging. Something has been lost: my dream is to be both an alcoholic and in good health.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Michael Roddy and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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