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The Discovery of Heaven Paperback – November 1, 1997
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Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch has created an epic tale 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 born 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, spirited affairs, untimely deaths, and other acts that reveal the influence of higher powers. 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, story of theology and science, angels, and earthly desires, is cleverly told in this hugely ambitious novel. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In a new novel bulging with metaphysical speculation, Dutch author Mulisch masterfully intersperses mathematics, biology, linguistics, numerology, philosophy and theology. When two strangers meet on a cold night in The Hague, Onno Quist, a linguist and politician from a well-to-do family, and Max Delius, an astronomer, have no idea that their relationship will change the course of human existence. Their meeting, however, like many of the momentous events that occur in the novel, is no accident of chance. It is the product of the careful manipulations by two angels acting at the request of God, who, upset that people are on the verge of mapping the genetic code and thus deciphering the secret of creation, desires to wash His hands of His creation. Disgusted with human behavior, the two angels plot to retrieve the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, thus breaking God's covenant with humanity. The two angels surmise that the 17th-century philosopher of science Francis Bacon made a pact with the devil for which all of mankind must atone?because scientific knowledge quickly superseded humanity's belief in God. The angels contrive a series of complex events involving Onno, Max and Ada Brons, a bright and beautiful cellist, in order to create Quinten, the boy who will be their unwitting instrument for fulfilling God's doomsday plan. As Onno, Max and Quinten think and work through their lives, they arrive, ultimately, at the impossible and forbidden?the discovery of heaven by means of science rather than faith. God has never been so unforgiving. Hope remains, however, that the next fallen angel might be more benevolent than the last. Mulisch, author of the critically hailed Last Call and The Assault, has created a masterpiece that not only brings his characters closer to discovering heaven but also prods them nearer to knowing themselves. Remarkably, he escalates his plot to ever more complex levels of thought without diminishing the strong, suspenseful (and, in Vincent's fluid translation, often funny) narrative thrust. This is novel-writing on a gloriously grand, hubristic scale.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I first encountered Mulisch's work with his earlier title The Procedure which examines the way that inanimate matter becomes living organisms by telling the stories of a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist who creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism, and the late sixteenth century Rabbi Jehudah Löw of Prague who creates a golem by following the procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text that God used to create Adam.
The Discovery of Heaven is a large novel of 730 pages that deals with God's relationship with the human race, predestination and free will, and the lives of two men, the woman they both love, and the child she conceives to fulfill a divine purpose. Translated from the Dutch by award-winning translator Paul Vincent, the book makes a smooth transition into English. I found it easy and compelling reading with a thought-provoking ending. While this is one of the most read and respected novels in The Netherlands, American readers are not always so enthusiastic. I believe that the philosophical and theological questions raised and the literary style that Mulisch uses to covey them may be difficult to translate, sort of like reading an English translation of the Chinese I Ching.
It has a story within a story construction that opens with two heavenly spirits talking to each other. One is telling the other how complex it was to bring together the right genetic profiles to produce the desired child who would be able to fulfill a mission from God. The story the spirit tells begins with astrophysicist Max Delius and philologist Onno Quist meeting, seemingly by chance, in The Hague in February 1967 when Max stops his car at midnight to pick up Onno who was hitchhiking to Amsterdam.
Their friendship forms the core of the book, which tells the story of first Max, and then Onno, falling in love with young cellist Ada Brons. From this love triangle, Ada produces a son Quinten, whose paternity is uncertain, but we watch as he grows to maturity and the fulfillment of his mission.
This is a story of how heavenly predestination looks like free will to the humans involved as the humans exercise their free will, and yet their situations are manipulated from heaven by a spirit with a mission to accomplish. What does God need from humans at the end of the 20th century? Read the book and find out one man's thoughts on this.
The relationship between Onno and Max that develops during the first section pulled me in, and I enjoyed the witty repartee and intellectual jousting and theorizing. I looked forward to seeing where this relationship would take me. Certainly, there's plenty of build-up, in the form of angels hinting about the cosmic significance of their machinations through these characters--a device I didn't particularly like or feel added anything to the book's effect.
There are novels that are primarily plot-driven, others that present some very memorable characters, and some that display an unusual facility with language itself. It's nice to have all three, but I'm not sure you can have a really successful novel without having at least one element that's outstanding. I found this one to include a couple of interesting characters, a vague plot that promises more than it delivers, and little in the way of style, although some of that may have been lost in translation.
There was not enough of any of these to sustain my enthusiasm through the book's length, and I found finishing the second half a grind--not so onerous and without its attractions that I didn't finish, but it took continual effort. Once the Max/Onno relationship matures, the pace and interest slow considerably. Mulisch clearly has an active mind and is very well-read, and he led me to ponder many fascinating ideas and apparent paradoxes (he's really into paradoxes), but most of these had little to do with the story itself or the significance of it; it's as though he just stuffs into the novel every intriguing idea he ever thought about. They are primarily window dressing, made part of the personalities of the two bantering main characters, who are continually going off on intellectual tangents. These tangents are also superficial; you read them and think, "That's interesting, I'll have to mention that to my friends," and then he moves on to some other similar diversion in the course of telling the story.
Ultimately, after all of this cleverness, I was surprised to find Mulisch didn't seem to have very much to say in the story itself; although presented as a profound philosophical novel, I didn't find it any more so than, say, The Da Vinci Code. After the first several hundred pages, the plot meanders towards the conclusion for which we wait, and wait. I won't disclose the ending other than to say that I didn't feel after 730 pages that I had been shown some new insight into human nature, or the nature of the universe, etc. In fact, it seemed a bizarre and confusing cop-out, coming after so long a wind-up; a long, drawn-out story to little ultimate effect. But I'd still be interested in reading another of his novels--albeit maybe a shorter one, because Mulisch does have an interesting mind.