Saturday, 8 February 2003

Harry Mulisch: The Discovery of Heaven (1992)

Translation: Paul Vincent, 1996
Edition: Penguin, 1998
Review number: 1143

This novel charts the lives of two close friends, liberals in sixties Holland, and their love affairs with a Concertgebouw cellist. One of them, Onno Quist, comes from a patriarchal family eminent in conservative politics, while Max Delius' father was a war criminal executed for betraying his Jewish wife and in-laws, leading to their deaths at Auschwitz. This much background immediately demonstrates that politics and the legacy of the war will be two of the novel's major themes.

The Discovery of Heaven has another theme, however, as is indicated in the dialogues which separate its four parts and provide prologue and epilogue. These make it clear that angelic beings of some kind are manipulating Max and Onno for their own purpose: the production of a specific child to fulfil a particular destiny. This supernatural framework prepares the reader for the philosophical and metaphysical discussions which fill the novel, although it does pre-empt a fair proportion of them. I feel that as far as the majority of the novel is concerned, they should have been omitted; without them, however, the ending would make very little sense. The dialogues seem to be there to add a half-hearted touch of magic realism, which detracts from the strengths of the novel (the depiction of the relationship between Onno and Max, for example); I would have found a different method of introducing Quinten's destiny more interesting.

The main interest in the novel is, as I have indicated, its central relationship and the discussions between the two men involved (which makes it pointless to read the novel if you are uninterested in philosophy and politics). There are occasional amusing snippets, such as the "demonstration" that Bacon wrote Nabokov's novels, or the Cuban conference, which make me suspect that humour has been to some extent lost in translation.

The Discovery of Heaven is an enjoyable read, as intellectual as (say) Iris Murdoch, even if not so well put together. Parts of it are better than others; it succeeds best as an account of an unusual friendship.

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