on February 17, 2004
DISCOVERY OF HEAVEN. Full appreciation of this novel may require a firm grasp of the difference between what is ambiguous and what is absurd. The book is about the interplay between the two and how they are mediated to the consciousness by meaning. That is, the novel asks us whether we want to stress the reality of madness or the madness of reality. Onno and Max are bosom friends and Onno takes up with Ada after Max destroys his own relationship with her by some words of amazing crudeness. Ada's pregnancy is clothed in doubt as to which of the two men is the father of the extraordinarily beautiful child born while she is in a coma following an auto accident. Max is the scientist-astronomer while Onno is the linguist paleographer. They and their conversations are brilliant if never quite serious. Quinten, Ada's child, is brought up by Max and Ada's mother, Sophia. These two have a sexual liaison lacking in several of the features that would make it an affair. After failing in politics and in linguistics, Onno drops out of life and ordinary reality and disappears, while Max finds something like an answer to the question of the origin of the universe and then gets zapped into eternity by a meteorite. Quinten goes on the archetypal quest for his father, (is Onno really his father?) which is the symbolic quest for God or the idea of God. His mother, in a coma seventeen years and a living sign of death, is nearly unknown to him. Symbolically he turns his back on "mother nature," on the corruption of nature from which new life springs in never ending cycles, and he undertakes the search for meaning.
Those of us who think our prime obligation in life is to grow progressively out of the ignorance into which we were born sometimes ask ourselves if the seemingly endless task is really worth it. Our ignorant associates and rellies seem to be no less "happy" than we whose main thrust is the acquisition of culture. But every now and then we receive a surprise reward for our efforts, like when we read a novel grounded solidly in ideas, culture, science, art, spirituality, one whose plot contains a wealth of examples of ambiguity or absurdity.
on December 1, 2002
I found it a struggle to continuously overlook the misogynist, elitist attitude. The main male characters, Onno and Max, have a style of intellectual banter that I enjoy to participate in. But the character of the boy child Quinten is just too much. A child with an intellect of an adult smells of an adult author assigning pretensions to a child. And of course that's exactly what happened.
But the worst part is when the author's opinion of women becomes clear and we see what sort of character the women possess. We have one musician = Ada, one librarian = Helga and a housewife = Sophia. Not one of them enjoys any intellectual discussion, not one of them is evident as having an original thought and all of them are quite at home cleaning or cooking in the kitchen.
P. 50 Onno speaking with Ada
"Aha," he said, and went over to her. "Woman's intuition." He hugged her clumsily. "Sorry about that. Women have everything - brains, feeling, willpower - but only men have intuition. That's why there's no female creation of any importance, and that isn't because they've always been confined to the kitchen, because even the best cooks are men. One is forced reluctantly to accept the fact. But they can do one thing that men can't do, and that is give birth to men. That's more than enough."
Sophia looked at the paper pattern that she was pinning to a piece of cloth. Max and Onno could see that she had to concentrate for a moment: these kinds of conversations tended to pass her by. Probably, she thought it was all boyish nonsense.
While Sophia and Helga were busy in the kitchen, as in Onno's view befitted women, the gentlemen went on talking about the subject of "historical astronomy" founded by Quinten.
Of course such women existed. But the story takes place in the early 60's through till the 80's. Excuse me, but this was also the time of outspoken women. Women who no longer went down on their knees before men. No more 'yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir'. Women who declared that they have always had an intellectual and cultural history independent to that of man. And all that Harry Mulisch can come up with is these three women!
on June 4, 2002
Mulisch's design for this book is grand; not quite as grand as the ideas that fall within its scope, but since these ideas are in the realm of "what caused the universe?" that's OK.
What we have is a plot where demi-gods/angels are disgusted with the scientific/rational progress of humanity, and work to separate their mystery from us. To do that, a sequence of genetic pairings and unlikely events have been contrived, to allow for the arrival of the Very Special Character. We, as readers, watch the pairings and events. Along the way, we have a number of very clever treatments of the Big Idea, both in the internal musings of characters, and discussions between them. The Big Idea is discussed in theology, history, physics, astronomy, architecture, art... It all gets a fairly thorough hashing through.
The problem I have with this book, however, is not that the events feel contrived (I have fun suspending my belief every Christmas, watching "It's A Wonderful Life"), nor is it that discussion gets 'heady' some times... But in the end, I felt I knew more about the characters' thoughts than I knew about the characters themselves. I didn't feel as if I read that much about how characters behaved towards each other, not enough to get a sense of who the characters were. We get some characterizations, but the Very Special Character remains shallow, with no childhood friends or enemies; we never see him in school or developing with any broader world outside the building in which he grows up. The adults around him never talk about anything besides the Big Issues. Certainly, Mulisch did a great job of presenting their musings, and their most serious thoughts, but there's a lot of incidental life which fell under his radar screeen (perhaps beneath his scope?), and I didn't feel as if these characters were people. To contrast, think of any of the "Baltimore" films from Barry Levinson, and how the incidental, non-plot dialogues make us feel like we know his characters; or Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon", where characters indulge themselves to search out Cape Town for katjap. Certainly, there are some incidental details here and there in Mulisch's book, but not enough to really round out these characters. For Mulisch, the idea is the thing; for me, that's not enough.
on April 15, 2002
For a long time I kept saying that "A Man" from Oriana Fallaci was the best book I ever read. "The Disovery of Heaven" goes way beyond that and for very different qualities and reasons. The author's combination of intelligence, knowledge, wit and fantasy is simply mindblowing. You'll need some time to read it, but what a quality time at it; from the european-jewish history, over marxist and capitalistic paradoxes, astrology and theology, to devine intervention, mixed with characters that are so real and yet so far out. I was often thinking about "could one make this book into a movie?" and my answer is "one movie: no way; it would have to be a couple of movies at least to be able to translate the richness of the story". With this I do not think the book is complex or hard to read at all; I typically can not stand books that make it hard to keep track of who's who and has done what; there is none of that. I've I'd sell the book I'd give satisfaction guaranteed or money back, to book is too good to return; even after having read it all. I only regret one thing: "not having read it slower so I'd still be reading it today" Maybe I'll have to start all over. </P>
PS "A Man" IS a good book (if you can find it)
on October 29, 2001
With 'The Discovery of Heaven' Mulisch is like an Olympic diver who attempts the most difficult dive imaginable and nearly nails it. Rarely are philosophy, theology, architecture and a host of other subjects presented so vividly in fiction. The introduction to the sweep of Mulisch's thought in the first third of the book left me giddy, not unlike how one feels upon meeting someone whose conversation challenges you to reexamine assumptions from airier heights. Nevertheless, at several of the book's turning points Mulisch seemed somewhat heavy-handed in the way he stretched the work's inner logic. Perhaps he is asking the reader not only to suspend disbelief but to step out of the boat in faith. There's a long stretch in the middle of the book where Mulisch sketches a bit too much detail in preparation for a final crescendo. However, faithful readers who forge ahead will be rewarded. While Mulisch's epic could not quite sustain its page-turning headiness from cover to cover, when I look back at the sparkling insights that Mulisch shared and how this novel covered perhaps more thematic ground than any novel I can recall in the last twenty years, I am left with awe and gratitude for what Mulisch conveyed along the way.
on August 9, 2000
This is one of the best books I have read in years. The way it starts off, it reminds you of "it's a wonderful life", because there is these 2 guys in Heaven discussing how they manipulate our fate here on earth. As we leave heaven and enter the story, the characters of Max and Onno immediately involve you. They could not be more different and better matched at the same time and we breathlessly follow them through the beginnings of their friendship and their incredible discussions about life, music, history, philosophy, the universe. This is one of the greatest qualities of this book: in the discussions of Onno and Max, as well as in other casual settings in the book, Mulisch displays an impressive knowledge of history, philosophy, art, and music without ever sacrificing tension in his storyline. The reader just gobbles up this information without ever having the feeling of having been lectured. The story takes some very incredible turns that will make your jaw drop and read even faster, and when it is all over, you will be sorry you finished it so fast and immediately vow to read it again because you ran too fast through all those passages of sheer beauty in thought and writing.
on August 7, 2000
"The Discovery of Heaven" is a very rich and entertaining book about two eccentric friends and their adventures in the restless sixties: Onno is an anarchic linguist from a dynasty of Calvinist Dutch politicians; Max is an astrologer who lives in the same country, but his family history is far more troubling: his father was a German from Austria; during the war he divorced his Jewish wife so she could be deported to Auschwitz.
The choice of heroes indicates that Mulisch wanted to write a throroughly big book which gives a panoramic view of Europe and the world in the second half of the 20th century. He seems to attempt a cross between Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" and Goethe's "Faust", as he has even God's closest assistants appear on the stage and elect a boy to perform a task as God's secret agent...
It does not quite work out however, because plot and ideas are drowned in 800 pages of period detail. Mulisch is a very clever man, but the book does not quite live up to the task it seems to have set itself. Most of the time it is just an family history in the Netherlands; the last chapters are obviously more than an afterthought, but they cannot really disturb the atmosphere of comfortable living in a comfortable country - which is not in itself a bad thing, is it? If you are interested in European culture, this is the novel to pick. Mulisch takes care to explain all his clever allusions to the less erudite readers, so you will finish it feeling you have learned something. "The Discovery of Heaven" will not disturb you too much, for even in a state of affliction its clever characters never lose their appetite for clever remarks.
on February 5, 1999
This is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Though I don't necessarily agree with all the views expressed in this philosophical novel, it must be said that Mulisch has a wide variety of interests, ranging from the development of the arts over the centuries to the changes the Enlightment and Scientific Revolution brang. Mulisch scetches a epic tale of two young men, destined to be pieces on God's chessboard in His plan for mankind. Though the actual setting of the story is not highly likely, credit must be given to the way in which Mulisch develops his plot; he goes out of his way to illuminate multiple coincedents (that in the end don't seem like coincedents anymore) and their part in God's plan. A lot of these things seemed so unlikely in the book itself, until I recognized that a lot in the world does indeed work that way. Though I don't agree with the way Mulisch portrays God, I sure found it a fascinating approach to how God implements His plans in the world!
on June 30, 1998
I guess I picked this book up because of the pretentious title - "The Discovery of Heaven!" , and also because I noted that it was largely based in Amsterdam, a city I love. And because I'm trying to work my way into Fiction after years of addiction to Non-Fiction. The addiction is cured, or should I say more accurately, reversed. I had forgotten how a good novel can transcend reality, but paradoxically, be more relevant to our lives than straight non-fiction. If potential readers are interested in male friendships, single parenthood, questionable paternity, astronomy, biblical studies, linguistics, european travel, history, the holocaust, amsterdam city living, theology, or just about any other topic for that matter, settle back for a few weeks (730 pages!) at night with this master tome. . This is one of those books that causes you to begin slowing down your reading pace towards the last 200 pages or so, re-reading passages, and reflecting on paragraphs, so as to postpone the painful time when you will no longer be reading it. I now find myself considering something I've never done before in my 44 years: Re-reading an entire book simply for pleasure
on January 30, 2000
One of the best books I've read in many years! Mulisch, a Dutchman, tells a fascinating, very European story about the convergence of the heavens to bring to life an unusual boy. Conceived and raised collectively, his parents, Max, Onno, Ada, and Sophia (you must read to understand) are four of the more interesting personalities you'll find in any novel. The novel is carefully divided into four parts (from the Beginning of the beginning to the End of the end) and is chock full of mystery and philosophical riddles. Most important is the "mission" that this young man is destined to accomplish. In a series of travels and impulses, the boy, in search of his father (to some extent) and something greater, seeks to find the realities to his architectural and spiritual visions in places like Rome and Jerusalem. The Washington Post called this, "One of the most entertaining and profound philosophical novels ever written." I highly recommend it!