Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Discovery of Heaven - Harry Mulisch

Harry Mulisch Author: The Discovery of Heaven (De ontdekking van de hemel)

Harry Mulisch, a prominent Dutch novelist, has created an epic orchestration of love, friendship, and divine intervention in this cerebral story of heavenly influence. On earth, the novel revolves around the friendship of a brilliant, charismatic astronomer and a talented linguist conceived on the same day. The two men also happen to share a lover, a woman of simple beauty who is a gifted cellist. These relationships, both intellectual and intimate, produce several intriguing conversations about science, art, and theology, and a child of uncertain paternity. The child's birth is closely followed by a number of mysterious accidents, wondrous affairs and spectacular deaths, and other acts that seem to emanate from the fingers of God. Quinten, the star-fated child, has a mission from on high to return the covenant God made with man before he was led astray by science and the dark influence of the devil. An engrossing, and at times, comic canvas of theology and science, angels, and earthly desires, is cleverly painted in this hugely ambitious novel.

Mulisch was born in Haarlem on the 29th of July 1927 to an Austro-Hungarian father and an Antwerp-born Jewish mother. He has been living in Amsterdam since 1958, after the death of his father in 1957. Mulisch's father emigrated to the Netherlands after the First World War. During the German occupation in World War II he worked for a German bank, which also dealt with confiscated Jewish assets. Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp thanks to Mulisch's father's collaboration with the Nazis. Due to the curious nature of his parents' positions, Mulisch has claimed that he IS the Second World War. The author was mostly raised by his parent's housemaid, Frieda Falk.

Mulisch has built up an impressive bookshelf of novels, stories, essays, poetry, dramas and philosophical works. Among them are two others I've read: The Procedure and The Assault. In 1977 he received the P.C. Hooft Prize and the Constantijn Huygens Prize for his work as a whole. In 1992 Mulisch celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, his fortieth anniversary as a writer, the completion and publication of the most substantial novel of his career: De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven)and the publication of the 500,000th Dutch copy of his international best seller De aanslag (The Assault). In 1997 Mulisch celebrated his seventieth birthday with the publication of his collected novels in one package, with unanimous praise from all over the world for De ontdekking van de hemel (of which more than 280,000 copies have been sold in Germany, and over 225,000 in the Netherlands to date).

The Discovery of Heaven, a 900 page novel, is Harry Mulisch’s culmination of all the paths he has taken in his previous work. The book has 65 chapters, one for each of Mulisch’s years. Mulisch, with his penchant for numerological symbolism, has given a first hint of the book’s autobiographical nature. In the two main characters, Max Delius and Onno Quist, the reader can recognize much of Mulisch and his deceased friend, the chess player, Jan Hein Donner. The two men are each other’s opposites. Max is an astronomer, an extrovert and an erotimaniac; Onno is a linguist, withdrawn and under the thumb of his girlfriend. When they meet each other in 1967 they immediately become intimate friends.

When Max meets the cellist Ada Brons a wrench is thrown into the works: for the first time the irrepressible womanizer has a longer relationship. But things go wrong between the two of them. Several months later Ada has become Onno’s girlfriend but that doesn’t stop her making love to Max one last time - drunk on the beach in Cuba. A complicated three-way relationship is born and becomes even more complicated when, on Ada’s return to the Netherlands, it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. Then fate intervenes: as a result of a traffic accident Ada goes into a permanent coma. The child can still be born by Caesarian section, but whether Quinten Quist is Max’s or Onno’s son remains a mystery.

Quinten, the son, reveals himself at an early age as a boy with special gifts. An angel appears to him in a dream and gives him the task of searching for the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, finding them and bringing them back to heaven. An adult Quinten eventually reaches Jerusalem where an exciting and overwhelming denouement takes place.

In The Discovery of Heaven, Mulisch pulls out all the stops and writes on all possible levels: heavenly and earthly, ironic and philosophic, archaic and futuristic, scientific and poetic. The struggle between good and evil, the myth of Oedipus, the Second World War, Cuba: almost every subject Mulisch has ever touched upon falls into place here in a way that is both ingenious and natural. The violent occurrences are sometimes shocking. Sometimes they evoke sheer amazement, but nowhere does the story lose its grip on the reader. That is partly due to Mulisch’s sense of humor which is as infectious as it is willful. The dialogue is sharp and spirited and alternates well with the more descriptive passages in which Mulisch subjects his characters to adventures which are, to put it mildly, dizzying - just as everything about this book is dizzying. The Discovery of Heaven can be called a classic: an epic that stands alone in contemporary Dutch letters.

Read more at Wikipedia on this author and his works.

Mulisch, Harry, The Discovery of Heaven - ISBN:0140239375

Two other titles I have read and recommend:

1 comment:

bluezkitten said...

I'm still checking this one out. This sounds wonderful and I'd love to read it but I'd have to do it over a period of many many many months I'm certain. I can barely stay awake long enough to read a newspaper! Plus, I have other more important things to do with my evenings now. Maybe someday, when I'm old (er) and have more time on my hands, when I can sit and quietly read while my sweetheart writes or paints. We'll see.