(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is unfortunate that English-speaking readers know Dutch writer Harry Mulisch from translations of his popular novels The Assault (1985) and Last Call (1989). These represent only a fragment of his prodigious output, which includes nearly four dozen books of fiction and philosophy. Nevertheless, the few works available in English suggest that Mulisch is concerned with more than mere entertainment in his novels. For example, in The Assault, he uses his own experience as a survivor of World War II and the Holocaust as a backdrop for exploring the presence and consequences of evil in the modern world. In Last Call, a novel ostensibly about the theater, he turns his attention to the nature of reality and the power of art to preserve and transform the world. The subjects of The Discovery of Heaven are even more complex and controversial: the nature of human existence, the possibility of the existence of God, and the relationship between humankind and its Creator. Tackling such subjects would be sufficiently challenging for most novelists, but Mulisch goes even further in his exploration of the human condition, exploring the nature of politics, the implications of scientific discovery, and the impact of technology on humankind in the twentieth century.

Mulisch’s philosophical musings are ensconced in a densely plotted novel reminiscent in some ways of Don Quixote and Tom Jones. His story opens in 1967, when philologist Onno Quist meets astronomer Max Delius on what they perceive as a chance encounter outside Amsterdam. The two are unlikely soulmates. Although Onno leads a bohemian existence, he is descended from a prominent family active in Dutch politics for generations, while Max is the son of a Jewish woman killed in the Holocaust after being betrayed by her husband, a Nazi war criminal. Their unusual friendship is strengthened, however, by conversations on matters of politics and philosophy. A chance encounter in a bookstore begins Max’s relationship with Ada, a young cellist. When their affair comes to an end, Ada eventually takes up with Onno. When Ada gets a chance to travel to Havana to perform a concert as a guest of the Communist government, Max and Onno decide to accompany her. In Cuba they are mistaken for revolutionaries and made to participate in a worldwide political conference sponsored by Fidel Castro. On the last day of their visit, while Onno is secretly visiting a prostitute, Max takes Ada swimming; at sea, overwhelmed by an unexplainable passion, they make love; the result of their lovemaking is Quintin, a child Onno believes is his, since he too makes love to Ada later the same day. When the trio returns to Holland and Onno learns Ada is pregnant, he agrees to marry her.

A reformed Onno decides to enter politics, and Max continues his career as an astronomer bent on discovering the mysteries of the deepest parts of the universe. All of their lives are altered tragically when, upon learning that Ada’s father is dying, they dash off to Amsterdam from the country so she can be with him. On the way, a freak auto accident sends Ada into a coma; Onno rushes her to the hospital and sends Max to tell Ada’s mother Sophia, who is now a widow, of Ada’s condition. In a scene of macabre irony, Sophia ends up seducing Max in her own home. Weeks later, doctors are able to deliver the comatose Ada’s baby when it is close to term. Overcome by the tragedy, however, Onno is unable to see himself in the role of father. Max agrees to raise the child and convinces Sophia to live with him—ostensibly as housekeeper, but really as his lover. The young Quintin, deprived of a mother who remains in a coma for the next two decades, grows up thinking Onno is his biological father. Although not a good student in school, he learns much about the world from Max and from tenants in the castle-turned-apartment house in which he lives with his foster father and grandmother.

Mulisch continues to complicate the plot by having Onno disgraced by a political rival who exposes his participation in the Cuban convention at a most inopportune time. Crushed, Onno leaves Holland just at a time when Quintin, an unusual child grown to an unusual teenager, most needs his fatherly consultation. For years, Quintin is obsessed by a recurrent dream in which he sees a building which he...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)