The Ditch by Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)

‘I tried to take a step back.  Because what if my imagination had been running away from me?’

Robert Walter, the 60-year-old mayor of Amsterdam, suspects his wife Sylvia is having affair.  Why?  Because he saw her laughing with another man, another alderman from Amsterdam.  He and Sylvia (not her real name) have had a long and happy marriage, they have a daughter Diana (not her real name) but he’s worried.  Of course, he doesn’t ask Sylvia, he just retreats into an inner world of suspicion and paranoia.

And then, while interviewing him, a journalist produces a photograph of a police officer being beaten by three protesters during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.  Is the mayor one of the protesters?

As Robert’s mind lurches between these crises (and his daughter’s cat goes missing), his 94-year-old father wants to speak with him. He and his wife intend to die together. He wants Robert to be aware, but not to interfere.  Robert knows he should speak with his mother, but then another issue distracts him.


Dear Robert, I really think you should speak with Sylvia (or whatever her name really is).  Unless of course, you’d rather obsess about possibility than deal with reality.  Surely there is more than one reason why Sylvia might laugh.

Mr Koch does a fine job of leading the reader into uncertainty.  What is real?  What only exists in Robert’s head?  And what about his parents?

I finished this novel vaguely dissatisfied.  Not because of the writing, but because here I was, obsessing about reality in fiction and wondering where the boundaries are.  Perhaps I’ve fallen into The Ditch.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith