"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 4, 2014

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

Just as in the case of the six years older Hermans, a frequent theme in Mulisch' work is the Second World War. The war was even present in his DNA, so to speak, for his father, an emigre to the Netherlands from Austria-Hungary, collaborated with the Germans during the war (for which he later spent three years in prison), while his mother was Jewish. But it was thanks to his father's collaboration that Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp - his maternal grandmother died in a gas chamber.

We find the war in his first great novel, The Stone Bridal Bed (Het Stenen Bruidsbed, 1958), in which an American dentist visits the ruined city of Dresden in then East Germany, thirteen years after he himself took part in bombing raids. He has a brief affair with a German woman and her conquest is described in Homeric terms, as an attack on the city. Other war narratives are just as famous: about the Eichmann trial in Criminal Case 40/61 (1962), about the German occupation in The Assault (De aanslag, 1985) - a political thriller that explored collaboration and indifference and that catapulted Mulisch to general fame - and about Hitler's fictive son in Siegfried (2003).

[Harry Mulisch - Photo Wikipedia]

After producing several novels and short story collections in the fifties, Mulisch mainly wrote essays in the 1960s, a period during which he was also actively engaged in leftist politics - he was a prominent defender of the Cuban revolution. In the 1970s he mainly wrote poetry and experimental work, but in the 1980s and 1990s he returned to the novel with a vengeance. In fact, he wrote his greatest work late in life - he completed The Discovery of Heaven, his magnum opus, when he was 65, but also wrote The Assault, Last Call, and Siegfried in these years (to name only the best ones).

The Discovery of Heaven has 65 chapters and can be called a summing up of Mulisch' life, as we find again the themes of war but also political action - one of the events described in the book is a visit to revolutionary Cuba. But Mulisch was also a philosopher - he wrote a philosophical study, The Composition of the World, and The Discovery of Heaven not only bulges with metaphysical speculation, it also masterfully intersperses mathematics, astronomy, biology, linguistics, numerology and philosophy. In the novel, one of the main characters, Max Delius, is Mulisch' alter ego, but with Mulisch' biography taken to extremes: Delius' father has been sentenced to death as a Nazi collaborator after the war, his Jewish mother has been sent to the extermination camps. Max will pay a visit to Auswitz and later, as a radio astronomer, he will be transferred to work at the Synthese Radio Telescope in Westerbork - a scientific complex built on the site of camp Westerbork, where Dutch Jews were gathered before their fatal train journey to Poland. 

The novel starts and ends with a mythological "frame" which also appears between the four parts. It is a discussion between two angels and partly based on the Faust-legend. As mankind has discovered both the secrets of life (DNA) and death (Auschwitz), God ("the Chief") wants to end his covenant with mankind and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. But Heaven is certainly not almighty in this novel and it is only with great difficulty that the angels are able to manipulate events on earth in such a way that two men and a woman meet and a child is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. In The Discovery of Heaven, Christianity is treated on the same level as Greek or Roman mythology in Western culture: nice to play with in literature or painting, but without any greater truth.

[Westerbork Synthese Radio Telescope, 
where Max Delius works - Photo Wikipedia]

The two men who figure in the novel are Max Delius and Onno Quist, and they are very different personalities. Max is an astronomer, an extrovert and a womanizer, and Onno is a linguist, a heavy and silent man who later becomes a politician like many others in his patrician family. When they meet each other in 1967 they immediately become close friends. In fact, Max is Mulisch' alter ego, and Onno is modeled on Mulisch' friend, the chess master Jan Hein Donner (1927-1988), who like the Onno in the novel came from a family of well-known protestant politicians (his nephew was until recently a cabinet minister).The two personalities are also symbolic: Max stands for the ratio, for science, the discovery of heaven by modern man via astronomy and other sciences. Ironically, he is killed by a meteorite just after he believes he has observed the space-time singularity. Onno is his opposite: as a linguist (he has deciphered the ancient Etruskan language and speaks about every language of the world) and as a politician he is a man of the word, and so also of mythology. Together with his son Quinten, Onno finally discovers the Tablets in Rome and so the myth behind the present novel.

[Jan Hein Donner]

The first part of the novel is the most beautiful one, describing the meeting and interaction of the two friends. They also meet the cellist Ada, who first becomes the girlfriend of Max - his first somewhat longer relationship, as he only used to consume love via one-night stands - but after a misunderstanding between the two, she next becomes the wife of Onno. But when the three of them visit Cuba for a musical festival, Max makes once more love to Ada on a Cuban beach, and that same night she sleeps with Onno, so when she gets pregnant, it is unclear whose child she is carrying.

In Part Two disaster strikes. Ada never sees that child herself, for fate intervenes in the form of a traffic accident that causes her to slip into a permanent coma. The child, Quinten, is born safely, however, and is taken care of by Max and the mother of Ada (with whom omnivore Max has a rather weird relationship). They live in an apartment in an old castle, not far from Westerbork where Max is working for the radio telescope, and that is where Part Three is situated. This section describes the education of Quinten, a precocious and unnaturally beautiful youth, who learns many interesting things from the other inhabitants of the flats that have been created in the old castle. One is an architect, who shows him pictures of old buildings, such as the Lateran Palace in Rome, which Quiten also has seen in a dream; another is a lock maker; a third one is a printer.

In this part also Onno's political ambitions are foiled - about to become Minister of Defense, his visit to Cuba serves as a spanner in the wheels of his career. In the same period, his girl friend is murdered by a vagrant, and disgusted with Holland, he leaves on a trip with the intention of becoming a recluse and never returning, without telling anyone where he goes. Later, Max, who in a moment of lucidity (or wine induced hallucinations?) believes he has discovered the basic principle of the universe, is killed by a meteor falling from the heavens, before he can share his discovery with the world.

[Staircase in the Lateran Palace, Rome, leading to the Sancta Sanctorum,
where Quinten finds the Tablets - Photo Wikipedia]

In Part Four, Quinten has come of age and decides to start traveling and both look for his father and the strange building he has seen in his dreams. Logically, he goes to Italy, first Venice, then Rome, where he is spotted by his father, who now looks like a tramp. But they team up for the finale of the quest for which Quinten has been celestially destined. This leads to a surprising solution that is perhaps a bit too much Raiders of the Lost Ark - although also Eco's Foucault's Pendulum comes to mind - (they find the Tablets in the Lateran palace in Rome), but that also has a beautiful denouement in Jerusalem - not the physical tablets, but the text written on them are reclaimed by the angels, and Quinten is transfigured together with the text which falls apart in its constituting signs. "In the beginning was the Word," and that word has now been take back by God, but at the same time we are left with the words of Harry Mulisch in our hands, in the form of this superb mythology.

[Moses and Aaron with the Tablets of the Law - Wikipedia]

This philosophical novel is a masterly synthesis of idea and story, making complex concepts not only comprehensible but also dramatizing them, immersing the reader in a fast-paced narrative peopled with vivid characters. Nowhere does the story lose its grip on the reader, also thanks to Mulisch' sense of humor. And like Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, Mulisch also paints a moving picture of life in the Netherlands, especially in the late 1960s (in the first part of the novel).