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Harry Mulisch: De Procedure (The Procedure)

As we know from De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven), Mulisch is fascinated by science. We also know that Mulisch studied science when young, before becoming a writer. This book is about the ultimate scientific problem, the creation of life. Mulisch gives us three separate tales of this. The first is God and the creation of Adam, Lilith and Eve. We get some relatively technical discussions of Genesis and when God created whom. We then pass to the story of the Golem, as created by Rabbi Löw in the sixteenth century. Mulisch embellishes this somewhat from the traditional story. Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, has brought together many of the learned men of Europe, including John Dee and Tycho Brahe. (One of the sub-themes of this novel is fame, particularly fame for scientific discoveries as opposed to that of writers.) Rabbi Löw is invited to participate, as the emperor has heard that he can make a homunculus, a golem. The rabbi is reluctant to do so but agrees to do if the Jews of Prague are guaranteed permanent protection. This is agreed and the rabbi, with the aid of his son-in-law, does succeed in making the golem but it does not work out as he intended.

However, the main story is about Victor Werker. Werker has managed to create a eobiont, which has brought him a certain amount of fame – he is even talked about as a potential Nobel Prize candidate – as well, of course, as a certain amount of notoriety with people who feel he is meddling in areas reserved for God. Victor was the only son of a Trotskyite portrait painter and a career army officer, who had been in a concentration camp and then injured in Indonesia and goes on to become the senior army officer in the Netherlands. Inevitably the couple clash, over sex (she wants more, he wants less) as well as over other matters and they divorce. Victor marries Clara, whom he meets by chance on a train (he had missed the one he intended to take, as he was looking at the station clock in a mirror and got the wrong time). Clara became pregnant but the baby was strangled by the umbilical cord while still in the womb. Clara was encouraged to have a normal birth, for her own health, which she did but, at the last minute, Victor could not take it and was not present at the birth. She could not forgive him and left him for a famous baritone. Victor has wanted her back ever since. Much of his part of the novel consists of a series of letters he writes to Aurora, the stillborn daughter, with the letters sent to Clara.

We learn about his early life, starting from birth. His mother had been quite cavalier about having the birth at home, though her military husband wanted her to go to hospital. He proved right. After feeding Victor, the mother had spare milk and she breast-fed three triplets whose mother could not feed them. When Victor finds out about this later in life, he is determined to track down what he calls his milk-brothers. But we also follow his scientific career and his success in creating the eobiont, as well as the professional jealousy of his assistant. He travels the world in his scientific endeavours, working in San Francisco, Venice, Amsterdam and working on mummies in Egypt. While the issue of creating life is the key to the book, inevitably details are not given, and, for Victor, he is worried that that is all he is going to be remembered for and all that he is going to do of importance. While it certainly is a fascinating book, I am not sure that, for me, it works as much as his earlier works, being somewhat bitty and not sometimes lacking a certain focus. But it is a Mulisch and anything by Mulisch is well worth your time reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 2001 by Viking