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

This is big book in every sense. Not only is it over seven hundred pages long, it treats of many big themes, such as the origin of man, man’s inhumanity to man, language and its origins, paternity, morality, architecture, friendship and, of course, God – all of which are related.

Two of the three main characters – Onno Quist and Max Delius – are set up by angels to meet. Yes, the whole plot is more or less controlled by a couple of Machiavellian angels who have even arranged World War I to ensure that the two meet. Quist is the son of a former Dutch prime minister and a somewhat aristocratic character who, like many good aristocrats, becomes a social democrat and, eventually, a Government minister. When the book opens, however, he is living on his own off his inheritance, occasionally seeing his girlfriend, Helga, and trying to interpret the Phaistos disc. (Side note: I have a model of the disk in front of me and the unpublished text of one of the many interpretations of the disk. There are all too interpretations many out there.) Max Delius (presumably no relation to the composer, though this is not mentioned) is an astronomer. His father, a Dutchman, married an Austrian Jew and then regretted it. Allied with the Fascists after the Germans invaded the Netherlands, he manages to get his wife sent to Auschwitz (where she presumably is killed, though this is cast into doubt at the end of the novel) and his son sent to foster parents. After the war, he is executed for his crimes.

The two meet and become fast friends. They meet Ada Brons, a gifted cellist, and Max starts a relationship with her. When they break up, Max goes off to look for his Jewish roots and Onno replaces Max as Ada’s lover. In a complicated and funny section, all three go off to Cuba where, at the very end of their stay, Max and Ada have one last fling, which results in the birth of the third main character, Quinten. Quinten’s birth is what the angels have plotted for. His upbringing is complicated. His mother is injured in an accident before his birth and remains in a coma for the rest of her life (Quinten is delivered by Caesarean section). His alleged father, Onno, feels incapable of bringing him up, not least because of his blossoming political career, so he is brought up by Max and Ada’s recently widowed mother, Sophie, with whom Max has had another of his flings.

The focus then moves to Quinten who is soon revealed to be special. We already knew this, because we have been privy to the angels’ discussions, though we do not yet know why. Quinten is angelic (everyone, but particularly gay men, seems attracted to him). He learns quickly and well but only what he wants to and he seems to have an affinity for both people and animals. All of this, of course, indicates that he is some sort of Jesus character. Sadly, the ending is a dismal flop as the whole story rapidly descends into a sub-Raiders of the Lost Ark plot, with biblical tablets and evil characters (Catholics rather than Nazis) on their tail. Indeed, this is Mulisch’s huge weakness. All too often his flippancy gets the better of him – whether it is the somewhat ludicrous angels, this Indiana Jones plot or his comments on the political arena. He does discuss many weighty matters, such as the Dutch responsibility for the fate of the Jews in the war, what paternity is (and isn’t) and the role of architecture, but all too often undoes it by being too clever by half. Nevertheless, this is a very fine novel and one that bears careful reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1992 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 1996 by Viking