Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

The plot twists of this novel occasionally resembles a soap opera gone mad. The most bizarre scene is when Max - an astronomer using data from a huge radio telescope, seems to be on the verge of discovering something that may lay beyond the universe and that existed before the big bang - is suddenly annihilated by a meteor as he sits in has back garden.
The novel also includes scenes where divine deities (angels sounds too much like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) discuss and manipluate events on the Earth – including the meteor that wiped out Max. The theology owes more to Gnosticism than traditional Christianity but never-the-less takes a willing suspension of disbelief.
Yet this is also a novel grounded in European 20th century history, politics and philosophy. It is full of ideas, speculation, scientific theories and linguistics.
Mulisch could perhaps be accused of showing off by cramming in arcane vignettes and expounding a broad knowledge of art, architecture, science, maths and Biblical scholarship, yet somehow he manages to weave it in without jarring the narrative and losing sight of his plot.
Plot is actually the wrong word because Mulisch seems to have set his sights on a conclusion, taken a starting point and then launched himself haphazardly over 725 hugely readable pages to get to his endpoint.
The two Dutch protagonists (or at least so it initially appears) are Max, the astronomer, and Onno a linguist who becomes a politician. As the novel meanders we dip into their respective histories and psyches – Max’s Jewish mother was sent to a concentration camp by his father. Needless to say Max is a complicated guy.
Max, a serial womaniser, meets Ada and has an affair with her, but when it fizzles out she takes up with Onno. Yet when the three of them are in Cuba in 1968 for a communist convention Ada has another brief fling with Max and when she falls pregnant is unsure who the father of her unborn child is.
The twists of fate that befall the trio are bizarre and almost absurd as divine intervention runs amok in a bid to create the set of circumstances in which Ada’s child, Quinten- the ultimate protagonist, can fulfil his destiny – the return of The Ten Commandments to ‘The Chief’.
It is the sort of novel that in the age of the internet I would rather have been sitting beside my laptop so that I could follow up on some of the more obscure references rather than reading during my recent trip through the Balkans. Never-the-less despite its broad frame of references an occasional obscurity it brings you lurching along with it, particularly in the last 150 pages or so when it took on a new lease of life as I raced to get to the end. Definitely a novel to be kept within easy reach and read again at a future date.
While getting an image I realised that there is a film version as well so it will be interesting to see how that manages to distil such an erratic narrative.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

I recall dimly that halfway through the novel took a dramatic twist, and I guess the meteor did it. Twenty years after I read this, inspired by John Updike's review in the New Yorker. I think I will try it again, as I probably forgot it-- all but the telescope. You review it well, and let us know when you see the film version. Another novel of Mulisch's, much shorter, "The Assault," based in WWII Holland, was also a movie; I'm not sure what the author's up to since then.