Their Man On Earth

The Discovery of Heaven

by Harry Mulisch, translated by Paul Vincent
Viking, 730 pp., $34.95

Let us imagine, says the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch, that there exists a clique of celestial beings with an unlimited capacity to intervene in human affairs, gods as the Olympians were, powerful without being good; and that, since the seventeenth century of the Christian era, when a pawn of the infernal powers named Francis Bacon set in motion the inductive-scientific revolution, these beings have been waging a losing battle for the allegiance of mankind. In 1968, as a final measure, they plant an agent on earth. Now, in 1985, that agent is about to be brought into play. His orders will be to sever the last tie between God (“the Chief”) and man, after which humankind must fare as best it can. “From now on Lucifer has a free hand…. I really don’t care anymore,” says the supervisor of the operation.

The Discovery of Heaven is the story of “our man on earth” (who in olden times would have been called an angel), as told (we are to imagine) by one celestial overseer to another. The paternal grandparents selected for this emissary are Wolfgang Delius, born in 1892 in Austria-Hungary, and Eva Weiss, born in 1908 in Belgium of German-Jewish parents, both resident in the Netherlands. Their only surviving son, Max, born in 1933, is marked out to be the emissary’s father.

During World War II Wolfgang Delius runs “a semigovernmental institution…specializing in plunder, particularly of Jewish goods.” Though Eva is by now separated from him, her status as his wife saves her from arrest, until Delius chooses to repudiate her, and she joins thousands of other Dutch Jews transported to Auschwitz. After the war Delius is tried as a collaborator and executed.

With some telling modifications, this is the story of Mulisch’s own parents. As an important functionary in the banking business, Mulisch Senior was able to shield his estranged Jewish wife and half-Jewish son from persecution. He did not, however, abandon them: his wife survived the Occupation and in 1951 emigrated to the United States. After the Liberation he was indeed arrested. He spent three years in detention but was not executed (he died of natural causes in 1957).

Harry Mulisch has written frequently, even obsessively, about his ancestry, and particularly about his father (among the few books in Max Delius’s apartment is Franz Kafka’s Letter to My Father, the cry of another son struggling to escape from under the suffocating weight of a father). In doing so Mulisch has to some extent mythologized his origins. In an autobiographical essay published in 1974, he traces his lineage on the paternal side back to the Turks who invaded Europe in the sixteenth century, and thence to the Huns of central Asia, and on the maternal side to the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. “One can hardly imagine a more ethnically ‘impure’ Dutchman than myself,” he writes in A Ghost Story (1993). “I… embody, not a struggle, but a continuous dialogue, between Christianity …

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Letters

It Was 1869 April 24, 1997