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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.1 “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 and Judaism, between Germany and the Netherlands, and several other things as well.”2

Pursuing this self-mythologization further in The Discovery of Heaven (Max Delius is transparently a fictional version of Mulisch himself), he awards to Max’s parents the fates that fortune spared his own parents: transportation to Auschwitz for his Jewish mother, execution for his collaborationist German-speaking father. This revision allows him to give Max an intensified awareness of the terrible fissure in European history opened by the Holocaust, as well as of the diagnostic and perhaps even prophetic role proper to a man who, “Dutch, Austrian, Jewish, and Aryan all at once,…belonged only with those who, like him, belonged with no one.”

Max visits Auschwitz. At the site of the death camp he has an uncanny experience: he feels that he is not fully present, that his real presence is lagging behind his physical self. The reluctance of the imagination to face the enormity of Auschwitz, and in general the failure of the imagination in the face of atrocious evil, has been one of Mulisch’s recurrent themes since The Stone Bridal Bed (1959; translation 1962), a novel in which he tries to fix a steady, Nietzschean gaze upon the peculiarly male pleasure in violation, a joy in destruction that is to be found as much among Homer’s Greeks as among the American airmen who bombed Dresden.

Auschwitz, Max feels, has shaken the foundations of the divine order and of the universe itself. “Was everything possible and could anything be done?” he asks, echoing Ivan Karamazov. “Even in heaven eternal bliss would be possible only by the grace of a criminal loss of memory. Should the blessed not be punished with hell for this? Everything had been wrecked for all eternity—not only here, but by thousands of earlier and later occasions, which no one remembered. Heaven was impossible; only hell might perhaps exist. Anyone who believed in God…should be executed.”

If hell had this branch on earth, where was heaven’s?” Max sees Auschwitz as Satan’s challenge to God, a challenge that resounds even in heaven. Auschwitz belongs to what Mulisch elsewhere calls anti-history (“the anti-history of…Attila, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Hitler…[where] there is no…thought, no purpose, no result—only nothingness…. The massacres of the Huns and the concentration camps of Hitler…lie side by side at the bottom of eternity”).3 Nothing in The Discovery of Heaven leads one to believe that God, “the Chief,” knows how to answer Satan’s challenge.

In the 1960s, the Netherlands Ministry of Science builds a major astronomical observatory, and Max accepts the position of chief astronomer. The observatory is constructed at Westerbork in rural Holland, a place with a shameful history. Set up in 1939 by the Dutch government as a camp for Jewish refugees from Germany, Westerbork was taken over by the Nazis as a transshipment camp to Birkenau. A hundred thousand Dutch Jews passed through it. After the war Dutch fascists were imprisoned there, and it was later put to use to house collaborators with the Dutch colonial regime fleeing reprisals in Indonesia. To Max it is “this accursed spot,” “this asshole of the Netherlands” (as Auschwitz itself is anus mundi), while the twelve huge dish aerials of the observatory look like “sacrificial altars [entreating] the blessing of heaven.” Yet there is no other place on earth where he can imagine working. “He belonged here; here was where he must spend his life.”

Max’s best friend is Onno Quist, scion of a wealthy patrician family. Both have promising careers before them (Onno has already made a scholarly name for himself by decoding certain baffling pre-Hellenic inscriptions). Meeting by chance (except that in their universe chance and design are not mutually exclusive), they discover that they are, in a sense, twins, having been conceived on the same day. They become inseparable, creating “a kind of infinity, like two mirrors reflecting each other.”

Even the entry of Ada Brons into their lives, first as Max’s mistress, then as Onno’s wife, does not cause a rift. Together they form a threesome; to Ada falls the role of admiring listener as Max and Onno conduct their “intellectual fencing match[es].” (These fencing matches, of which we are given extended samples, read uncomfortably like rather juvenile raillery.)

Ada, a professional musician, is invited to an arts festival in Havana. Max and Onno decide to accompany her (the year is 1967, the Cuban cause is popular among the European Left—Mulisch himself published a starry-eyed report on Cuba in 1968). Because of a slip-up by the Cuban bureaucracy, they are taken to be delegates to a concurrent congress of revolutionaries. They go along with the charade until they grow bored with the speechmaking. Then they withdraw to the pleasures of sun and surf. Max enjoys the anarchic feel of Cuban life; when he catches a glimpse of Fidel, the cup of his happiness runs over. “It must be possible to found a just society on earth…. If Fidel succeeds, if only a little, I’m quite prepared in a manner of speaking to grant him a reflection of something like the divine.”

In this paradisal setting Max and Ada succumb to a moment of passion and make love among the waves. Ada becomes pregnant; but since she makes sure she sleeps with her husband the same night, she is never sure of the paternity of her child. “Was she pregnant by the friendship between the two of them?” she wonders.

As the gods have presided over the union of Max and Ada, so they crudely see to it that Ada never learns the answer to her question. Back in Holland, as the trio drive through a storm, their car is hit by a falling tree. Max and Onno are unharmed, but Ada suffers irreparable brain damage. Her son, Quinten, is delivered by Caesarean section; she is kept alive for years in a private hospital but never recovers consciousness.

Without a mother, and with a nominal father plainly unequipped to look after him, the baby passes into the joint care of Ada’s mother Sophia and Max. In constituting this odd new family, the gods again play a part: Sophia creeps nightly into Max’s bed and overpowers his senses with the sweetness of her lovemaking, yet seems to bear no memory, in the light of day, of their nocturnal congress—indeed, she won’t have it mentioned. Though Sophia reminds Max of the Sphinx, her sexual hold over him is so powerful that he abandons his libertine ways and settles into staid if secret paternity. (Mulisch does not allow us to forget that Moses and Jesus came from equally strange family setups. And in his fiction—most directly in Two Women (1975; translation 1980), about the attempts of a woman to give her lesbian lover a child—he has repeatedly explored alternatives to the nuclear family.)

Quinten Quist is a strangely beautiful child with lapis lazuli eyes, “a color blue that none of them had seen before in a human being.” His first word is “obelisk.” Though his early years are unexceptional, he is haunted by memories of sights he has not seen and experiences he has not had, memories imprinted on him before birth. His duty is to find their earthly originals. Among them is a certain lofty, temple-like interior, for which his private name is “the Citadel.” His task in life, he obscurely knows, is to locate the Citadel. The words “the center of the world” also trouble his dreams.

A casual observation by young Quinten allows Max to take the first step on his own path toward illumination, bringing together his obsession with the Holocaust and his vocation as watcher of the heavens. If a star is forty light-years away, says Quinten, then watchers on that star must be able to see what happened on earth forty years ago in earth time. Furthermore, the star is bouncing the same visual impulses back to earth, however weakly: once the technical problem of picking them up has been solved, we ourselves will be able to see what happened on earth eighty years ago.

If Quinten is right, thinks Max, the whole of human history is still being played out, in the form of light waves, somewhere in the universe. Somewhere his mother is still getting into the cattle car that will take her to Auschwitz. Nothing is truly past, nothing is hidden. Once we are able to see the past in all its fullness, the “whole truth” will be known and mankind will finally be “liberated.” Then he checks himself: will mankind really welcome the whole truth—does he himself, for instance, want Onno to see a replay of his adultery with Ada?

As a child Max had the Promethean ambition of laying “bare the secret of the universe,” but his scientific research has never been quite of the highest order. At Westerbork he has a second major insight, one that balances the dark illumination of Auschwitz. Astronomers all over the world have been puzzled by the pulses emanating from a quasar named MQ 3412. Max surmises that it is not MQ 3412 itself that is behaving oddly, but something behind it. MQ 3412 is directly in line with, and hiding, a view of “the primeval singularity itself,” the origin of the universe. Whereupon, in a creative outburst, Max conceives a unified theory of space and time, in which the four fundamental forces of nature and the seventeen natural constants are contained and explained. In essence the theory is Pythagorean: the principle underlying the universe is musical harmony. At this climactic moment Max is struck by a meteorite hurled by the beings whose secrets he is about to unveil, and killed.

Max Delius’s Pythagoreanism belongs to a neo-Platonic cosmology that Mulisch himself has been propagandizing, under the name “octavity,” since the 1970s. (He claims that he laid the foundations of his system during a spurt of creative energy in the late 1940s.) Octavity embraces an alternative, postscientific physics based on an anti-Aristotelian, postlogical logic in which contradiction is not excluded: just as a musical note and its octave both are and are not the same sound, so, in Mulisch’s postlogic, an entity is both nonidentical to itself and (as a boundary condition) identical to itself.

For Mulisch octavity is not a mere metaphor, an “as-if” for some other, more “scientific” account of the universe. It is by its nature a philosophy of metaphor, of homologies or correspondences that may seem to be accidental (like the homology between Westerbork and Auschwitz) but in fact echo, or rhyme significantly with, each other—as do coincidences in fiction. Octavity is the most basic of all principles, underlying not only the structure of the heavens but the broad sweep of human history. Thus, for instance, the Renaissance was marked by a rediscovery of Pythagorean principles of number and harmony in art and architecture, while in the grand tyrannies of the twentieth century—principally Nazism—we witness the submergence of these humanistic principles and a return to pre-Pythagorean, Pharaonic gigantism and the cult of death.

In the person of Max Delius, Mulisch thus brings together an intensely felt personal preoccupation with the historical trauma of Europe under fascism with an idiosyncratic, even arcane, vision of the cosmological order. As his son, the banished and brainwashed angel, will later remark, “I have the feeling that the world is very complicated, but that there’s something behind it that is very simple and at the same time incomprehensible.” In this respect The Discovery of Heaven marks a creative advance over The Assault (1982; translation 1985), Mulisch’s best-known novel to date, which explores in powerful but, by comparison with the new novel, myopic fashion the use of forgetfulness by individuals and societies to protect themselves from painful memories. (In what amounts to a private joke on Mulisch’s part, the central figure of The Assault reappears in a walk-on role in The Discovery of Heaven.)

Meanwhile Onno has abandoned scholarship for politics. He spends some years as a junior cabinet minister (the chapters devoted to the internal squabbles of Dutch politics of the 1970s are largely wasted on the foreign reader), and seems to be a rising star, until a malicious rival discloses his participation in the Havana conference and puts an end to his career.

In disgust he quits the country. For several years he lives incognito in Rome, speaking only to a pet raven named Edgar (after Edgar Allan Poe). The raven would seem to be a spy planted by the celestial watchers; Quinten too is dogged by flies, wasps, ants, as well as by tempters and temptresses. Onno’s monologues to the raven, mainly diatribes on world history, make for less than gripping reading, and confirm one’s suspicion that with the death of Max the novel has lost its backbone.

In Rome Onno is miraculously tracked down by Quinten, now aged seventeen, obeying the inner voice that controls him. Slowly the place of Onno in the cosmic plot begins to become clear. He is needed as a paleographer and antiquarian, in order to decode the various inscriptions (in Latin, in Hebrew) that will guide Quinten to the Citadel of his dreams and bring to fruition his mission on earth, which turns out to be the theft of the tablets of Moses from where they have been secreted in the crypt of the Lateran Chapel, and the return of the tablets to Jerusalem. For this purpose Quinten has conveniently been provided with a crash course in pre-modern lock technology; the long sequence in which philologist and cracksman unite in a race against time to pick the locks of the Lateran comes straight out of Hollywood and will feed back seamlessly into the film of the book that will likely be made.

Onno has begun to find “something inhuman” in Quinten, “a touch of interstellar coldness.” But both are by now under the sway of greater forces. With the sacred tablets in a suitcase they fly off to Jerusalem, where they catch a glimpse of a mysterious woman with Quinten’s blue eyes and a number tattooed on her arm: Eva Weiss, Max’s mother and (the cuckolded Onno now realizes) Quinten’s grandmother, who has either survived Auschwitz or come back from the grave.

Everything is coming to a head: walking like a zombie, guided by Edgar the raven, Quinten carries the tablets to the Temple Mount—the center of the world—where, in a climax mingling Judaic, Christian, and Muslim motifs, the tablets crumble to nothing, signaling the end of God’s covenant with mankind; whereupon Quinten is borne back into the heavens.

Along with W.F. Hermans (1921-1995), Gerhard Reve (b. 1923), the Fleming Hugo Claus (b. 1929), and Cees Nooteboom (b. 1933), Harry Mulisch (b. 1927) belongs to the first rank of Dutch novelists of his generation. All except Hermans have had a fair amount of their work translated into English, without making the impact on the English-speaking public that many of their twenty million countrymen in the Dutch-speaking world feel they deserve. They are better known in France, Scandinavia, and (particularly) Germany.

With The Assault and Last Call (1985; translation 1989), Mulisch has to some extent lifted himself free of this fate (it helped that The Assault was turned into a successful film). The Discovery of Heaven will certainly add to his reputation. Mulisch has always known how to tell a story, and here he interweaves three life stories—Max’s, Onno’s, and Quinten’s—with admirable dexterity. In creating Max, his stroke of genius has been to situate the dilemma of the Dutch intellectual of his own generation, facing the future of a peaceful, prosperous, unified Europe, yet still haunted by the nightmare past of the Occupation, within a larger question: Has mankind truly moved beyond good and evil, and, if so, how has it happened?

In the case of Quinten, Mulisch gives a moving portrayal of the inner life of a baffled, otherworldly being struggling to find the reason for his existence (Quinten’s precocity can become cloying, however, particularly when adults are around to marvel at his latest aperçu); while the eerie liaison between Max and Quinten’s grandmother is entirely convincing. If the action is rather slow-paced, this is compensated for by the intellectual adventurousness of the whole. Though there are times when Mulisch seems merely to be showing off the range of his knowledge, the play of ideas is generally lively.

It is probably best not to make the underlying conceit of The Discovery of Heaven—that God is about to abandon mankind to Satan—bear too much weight, just as we need not take too seriously the claim that since the time of Constantine the popes have been in possession of the tablets of Moses. Mulisch’s myth implies an apocalyptic reading of the history of the twentieth century, a reading that is hardly borne out by the picture of contemporary life in his book. Aside from miserable weather, vandalized callboxes, nouveau-riche philistinism, and boring politics, Mulisch’s Holland seems not too bad a place, certainly not bad enough to deserve the diatribes of the heavenly beings against what Mulisch elsewhere calls “an increasingly fascistic-technological world.”4 There is little “fascistic” technology on view, and what violence there is has been plotted in heaven. Indeed, if anyone comes out badly from the story, it is not the men but the gods. Whether or not mankind has fallen into the trap that Satan, using Aristotle’s logic and Bacon’s science, has prepared for it, who would want to be saved by beings as petulant, despotic, and amoral as Mulisch’s heavenly crew?

The translation, by Paul Vincent, is good without being exemplary. There are a fair number of outright errors, most to be attributed to carelessness, some to a failure to understand the original (instead of “the dilemma of theodicy,” Vincent writes of a “Theodicean dilemma,” as though there had been a person named Theodicea). Complex verb constructions are sometimes simplified at the cost of nuance. Nor does Vincent always solve the problem posed by the plethora of fussy little modifiers characteristic of Dutch. The result is some cramped English: “precisely more in the spirit of…”

Errors of fact that ought to have been picked up by an editor have crept into the English text: DNA is claimed to have been discovered in 1869, and sixty million Jews are said to have died in the Nazi camps. There are misspellings and elementary lexical errors (“a role of parchment”).

Vincent also uses locutions that make Mulisch’s Holland sound like England: “Stop that nonsense, mate!” “GP,” “vicar,” “old fogey.” He might have taken a lesson from Adrienne Dixon, translator of The Stone Bridal Bed and Last Call, who employs a discreetly neutral variety of English, neither British nor American.

Letters

It Was 1869 April 24, 1997

  1. 1

    Voer voor psychologen (Fodder for Psychologists) (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1974), pp. 13-14.

  2. 2

    Een spookgeschiedenis/Eine Gespenstergeschichte/A Ghost Story(Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1993), pp. 53-54.

  3. 3

    The Stone Bridal Bed, translated by Adrienne Dixon (Abelard-Schuman 1962), p. 96.

  4. 4

    De Zuilen van Hercules (The Pillars of Hercules) (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1990), p. 43.

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