Harry Mulisch - The Discovery of Heaven
Two angels are conversing. Apparently, Francis Bacon - the 16th century scientist credited with establishing, among other things, the scientific methodology known as the 'Baconian Method' - made a pact with the devil, which caused humanity to lose their way with God, instead embracing the more vapid realm of technological progress; gadgets, as it were. God is convinced that the covenant between heaven and earth is broken and has charged the angels with retrieving the original stone tablets that contain the Ten Commandments as handed down by God to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai. To do this, a perfect human must be created - the angels intervene with twentieth century history to ensure that this occurs.
A complicated setup, to be sure. Happily, for at least the first half of the novel, the heavy theological implications of The Discovery of Heaven do not weigh the novel down. Rather, we are invited into the intelligence, artistic and creative world that is the friendship of Onno Quist and Max Delius.
They were conceived on the same day, but are completely different. Onno is hugely intelligent, but suffers from a mind that is too rarefied for the concrete harshness of the world. A savant when it comes to languages, Onno made his name in the world of linguistics by translating Etruscan. 'It was because I made Etruscan comprehensible. The greatest minds in the world had failed - even Professor Massimo Pellegrini in Rome was too stupid - so I thought I may as well do it.' For now, he studies obscure topics and lives comfortable on the interest from his father's inheritance.
Max Delius lost his parents at a very young age during World War II. His mother was a Jew; she met a predictably sad end in a concentration camp. His father was a Dutch officer in the German army, it was his hand that indirectly caused the death of his wife. As a result of this, Max lives his life convinced that at any time, the people that he holds close could leave him. He is an astronomer, spending his free time seducing a string of random women who mean nothing at all.
But when they meet by chance when Onno is hitching a ride home to Amsterdam (a meeting assisted by the unseen hand of an angel), something immediately clicks. From this random encounter comes a friendship that is strong beyond anything they have experienced before. 'Max had never met anyone like Onno, Onno had never met anyone like Max - as a self-proclaimed pair of twins, they did not cease to delight in each other.'
Once this relationship has solidified, a third party enters. Of course, she is a woman, but the novel does not take a predictable turn in having a rivalry for Ada Brons' hand dominate the story. No, she begins as Max's girlfriend and ends as Onno's wife, but the way in which this is handled never for a moment suggests a clash of will, a fight for love. Max is happy that Ada is with the one man in the world he loves without reservation, Onno is gently surprised that he could ever be married at all. Later, in Cuba, under ambiguous circumstances, Ada becomes pregnant - but to Max, or to Onno? It is not clear to them, though the angels make it clear for us.
After decades of work, the angels have maneuvered everything and everyone into place. Max, Onno and Ada were all required to be born to properly create the child who could return the tablets to Heaven, and this has now been accomplished. The first half of the novel is concerned not with this theological problem but with the sweet, endearing friendship between Max and Onno and, to a lesser extent, the bond they share with Ada.
Mulisch is adept at creating a believable adult-male friendship. Max and Onno are both very intelligent, able to bounce ideas and theories of one another on subjects ranging from Kafka to translation and everything in between. A discussion on the noticeable warmth left behind when someone has been sitting on a chair is particularly clever, and funny in its simple truth. While the two men generally discuss matters of history, philosophy, and the spectrum of ideas, there is never a sense that Mulisch is hitting us over the head with his cleverness. Rather, we can believe that we are listening to two intelligent men talking about whatever it is that intelligent people discuss. Unlike, say, a Pynchon or an Eco, conversations do not exist to flaunt the erudition of the author, but rather the character of the characters.
Midway through the novel, pre-arranged tragedy strikes. A very pregnant Ada is involved in a car accident, she falls into a coma from which the likelihood of recovery is slim. But her child is alive and, through the intricacies of modern medicine, is delivered healthy and safe at seven months, by cesarean. Thanks to a complicated narrative device, Max becomes the caretaker of the child, Quentin.
The novel shifts quite dramatically in tone. While Onno embroils himself within the intricacies of Dutch politics, Max raises Quinten, the child which embodies the hopes of the angels, and of God. From a intellectually rambling novel of friendship and adventure, comes a more sedate, measured story of a child's growth and education.
What do we learn of Quinten? He grows up in an old castle, populated with vaguely eccentric characters, each of which is capable of - and willing to - teach him snippets of information which will come to play a large part in his destiny. From one man he learns of Judaism, from another, architecture. He is a curious, sensitive, quiet boy; his stunning good looks inspire trust and warmth in others.
The Discovery of Heaven slows down dramatically as Quinten grows from a baby to a young adult of seventeen. Oddly, large parts of his childhood are glossed over, yet the sensation of a slow novel remains. This is neither to Mulisch's credit or detriment - the novel simply changes pace, a fact which is immediately noticeable from the end of the second part and the beginning of the third.
There is never any doubt that Quinten will achieve his goal - indeed, we are almost led to believe by the angels that the large majority of twentieth century history occurred so that Quinten could be born. This is not meant to be a thriller, though the pages turn with rapidity, due to Mulisch's skill with words and penchant for interesting asides and digressions.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure in The Discovery of Heaven comes from the consistently thought-provoking text. While the last two hundred pages are dominated with theological (both Catholic and Jewish) problems and ideas, there is enough non-theological meat to satisfy any curious reader. Max's interest in astronomy serves as a jumping point for all manner of mini-essays, and Onno's autodidactism is a treat in itself. Any event, any situation, any conversation, gives Mulisch a chance to allow his characters to shine with their insight and intelligence. The narrator, nominally Mulisch himself, is certainly not shy of following whichever intellectual path takes his fancy, though these are nowhere near as involved or involving as the problems the characters themselves raise and discuss.
The Discovery of Heaven is astonishingly ambitious. It tackles a great many themes, and handles all of them with intelligence and candour. Mulisch treats his readers with dignity by explaining every difficult concept in such a way that we feel neither insulted by our lack of knowledge, or that we are in over our heads as character's spout obscure factoids and ideas. While the novel may be too difficult or too long for some, it is unhesitatingly recommended for all others who crave the sort of writing that inspires, that questions, that encourages thought.
Harry Mulisch - Siegfried
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