Saturday, November 7, 2009

De ontdekking van de hemel - Harry Mulisch

I'm a little behind on my reading this week, mostly because I put a book down to start The Gathering Storm. To keep you entertained I moved an older review from my other blog. So serious literature this time ;) I wrote this in November 2006. Apart from fixing a few errors in my English it is pretty much unchanged.

This book is one of the highlights of post-war Dutch literature according to the critics and a huge success for the author. It's been published in English, French and German translation (and a few more besides I'm sure) and made into a movie starring Stephen Fry and Jeroen Krabbé. I obviously read it in Dutch but in the review I will use the title of the English translation, The Discovery of Heaven The premise of the novel is simple. God decided he's had enough of mankind's steady unravelling of his mysteries. To show his displeasure with the world he decides to recover the stone tablets containing the ten commandments and sever the link between heaven and earth. Being god he doesn't just go down and fetch them himself but let's a boy do the searching for him. Recovering the stone tablets, sounds like something Dan Brown would write. In fact, he probably wishes he was capable of it.

According to Mulisch himself, it is his Magnum Opus. I've only read one of his other works (the Assault, also made into a film, I think that one got an Oscar) so I'm not much of a judge in that respect. If by great he mean that it's a big book he's absolutely right. My Dutch copy had 927 pages. I expect it'll be a bit shorter in English. English tends to be a bit more efficient. Mulisch has been ridiculed in recent years over his, shall we say, less than modest opinion about himself. Apparently he is trying to best Goethe. Rather ambitious to say the least.

Truth be told, Mulisch is a very good author. One of the biggest names in modern Dutch literature. Obligatory almost, in every literature class over here. Which is probably why it took me so long to pick up this particular book. Mulisch is good and he likes to show it off. The Discovery of Heaven is filled with lots of facts and details on languages, places, philosophy, religion and science. He uses an awful lot of quotes in foreign languages, Latin and German being most prominent among them, which can be rather trying on the reader. Especially since he doesn't usually bother to translate them. Without a broad education one could easily get lost in the dialogues between main characters Max and Onno. I can't help but wonder how foreign readers manage without a background in Dutch 20th century history.

The book itself is mostly dedicated to explaining how the angels manipulate affairs on Earth to create the boy (Quinten) who will bring back the tables to them. In intermezzos between the main parts of the book the angels discuss how and why they manipulated affairs on earth to recover the tablets. This Deus Ex Machina theme very prominent towards the end of the book in particular. Quinten is born from a complicated love triangle between Onno, Max and Ada. With none of them entirely sure who is the boy's father. Thanks to our manipulative angels their lives are dramatic, even tragic and certainly eventful.

Many of the themes form Mulisch's previous books return. I recognized some from the Assault, even if it has been 12 years since I read it. The second world war is prominent among them of course. It's one of the reasons why I don't read that much Dutch literature. There is simply no escaping that topic and I can only stomach so many books on the war. Mulisch is of Jewish decent and old enough to remember it, so it's an obvious theme for him I suppose. Still, it is very present in the book. Max and Onno's date of conception, the location of Westerbork, Max's parents, Max's visit to Auschwich etc. Some other events that apparently deeply impressed Mulisch are the student protests in 1968 and the Cuban Revolution both of which are prominently featured. He even briefly mentions the mass demonstrations against the stationing of nuclear missiles in the Netherlands in 1981. This event was the climax of the Assault.

In a way it is quite a humorous book. I especially appreciated Onno's dry sense of humour, his sincere disbelieve at some of the strange things people do and his rather refreshing view on politics. Two other highlights of the book in this respect were the way Onno and Max find themselves on a revolutionary conference on Cuba without being invited and of course the scene where Max is close to the "discovery of heaven" and is stuck down by fire from the sky for his trouble. Max is obviously modelled after the author himself. Especially his parents and youth are too close to reality to ignore. I wonder if Mulisch intentionally chose the most unlikely way possible to kill Max, and thus in a sense himself.

Towards the end the book gets rather heavy on metaphysics. Mulisch doesn't delay it though. Once Quinten makes up his mind he acts pretty efficient. Having seen the movie I more or less knew what to expect but the end was interesting anyway. All in all a good read. Not something to pick up in the 30 minutes before you put out the light to go to sleep but well worth the effort. Although the themes (I'm thinking of Ada's death and life in particular here) and main characters are very Dutch in a way, I'm not surprised the book did well in translation. It is quite an investment of the reader's part but very much worth the effort.

Book Details
Title: De Ontdekking van de Hemel
Author: Harry Mulisch
Publisher: De Bezige Bei
Pages: 927
Year: 2006
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 90-234-2001-2
First published: 1992

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