This is the first post for the The Discovery of Heaven read along, as hosted by me throughout May and June. If you’re interested, read more information about the read along here. If you have posted about part I yourself, feel free to leave the link below and I will include them at the bottom of this post.
When I started reading the first part of this book, I honestly questioned what I had gotten myself into. Moreover, I questioned what I had gotten all of you who are participating into. You see, I remember loving this book. But when I had read the first 50 pages, I was pretty sure I was not going to love it like I did this time. Rather, I found fault with so many things in this book, I was sure all of you would give up after reading those first 50 pages. But I continued on, hoping some of you would take courage and do the same. And I have to tell you, I did begin to like it better.
Yes, I still find fault with a lot of it. But I also realised something. All those faults, all the arguments I held in my head with the stoic picture of Harry Mulisch on the back of the Dutch edition of this book, (which looks like this, by the way), resulted in this: This might be the perfect introduction to Harry Mulisch. Everything that people hate and like about this author, oh, and maybe some love things about him too, is in this book. It is his Magnus Opus, and there must be a reason for that. And, there is. You see, if you are going to try Mulisch, you had better read this, or the Assault (which I think might be an easier introduction, but also not a complete one, which I guarantee you, The Discovery of Heaven is). This book, this, is Harry Mulisch. Not only the themes, but also, as this post says (Note: do not read this link if you haven’t finished the whole book), part of his life is in here. His father was locked up after the war for collaborating with the Germans, his mother, a jew, survived the war thanks to his father’s help. Whether I end up loving or hating him and his work, after reading this, I know just what I can expect to find, and you will know just what you will find, in any of the other books by him. That is also one of the reasons why I recommend not reading every thing written by him, or even two books by him, shortly after each other. Because, inevitably, themes will be repeated. Over and over again. Trust me.
The Discovery of Heaven is called epic, in almost every review out there. I can see why. It takes the universe as its setting, it takes on so many themes you rather wonder if Mulisch isn’t being overly ambitious: religion is a dominant theme, but so is literature, language in itself, politics and metaphysics and/or physics and astronomy. Oh, and of course, since this is
Mulisch Dutch literature, it features sex.
In this first part, we meet Max and Onno. They, respectively an astronomer and a decipherer of ancient languages turned politician, meet by chance but end up becoming the best of friends. Soon, Max and Onno, both fall in love with Ada, a cellist, who first has a relationship with “I’m so manly, I sleep with every woman I fancy and then leave them, just like that” – Max, but later with the “not-so-attractive, thoroughly-messy-and-unhealthy, but steadfast” – Onno. When Ada receives an invitation to Cuba to perform at a cultural gathering, Max and Onno accompany her. And while Onno is seduced by a Cuban lady, apparently, without him being able to help it, unable to resist, Max and Ada have sex in the ocean. Nothing epic about this storyline, thus far, right? Except, that when seen in light of the Prologue and the First Intermezzo, nothing suddenly seems to have happened by chance. Because Ada and Max are supposed to have a child, that will have this big assignment received from what I gather are angels. And everything, even the First World War, was planned to get these two to meet, to have sex and conceive a child.
Um, so yes. On to my problems with this first part, because even though I started to enjoy reading this book more towards the end, all I really took note of while reading were the many things I couldn’t agree with, shook my head to while reading, wanted to shout at Harry Mulisch for. Here we go:
- First of all, there is the religious setting. I know it is probably meant to be funny, or some form of critique on religion, but this depiction of angels starting two wars, two such enormous wars, just for this one child to be born? Scary, plain scary. And while I am not pro or against religion, I am so tired of religion so often being depicted as only controlling and dangerous. I don’t know, I just couldn’t laugh at those first 10 pages.
- Then, there is Onno and Max and their friendship. Wow, did they get on my nerves! No friendship works that way. No normal people talk that way. I know the rest of the book will be less heavily focused on their friendship, and I have to say I am glad.
- Since we’re on the topic of the talks Onno and Max share. Can I just say: STOP WITH THE SHOWING OFF ALREADY, MULISCH! This is the big thing I find fault with in Mulisch. It isn’t that he is overly ambitious in this book, per se, because really, you will find it in almost any book of his, but please, I do not need to know how much you know of literature, or physics or whatever other topic you try to wriggle in between the flow of the book. It just, makes the book unnecessarily thick and it also made me start skimming pieces of text: “Oh, here’s another page on quantum mechanics, let’s move on”. Please, I know I probably should be impressed, but I am not. I can’t help but feel you a) wish to make me feel stupid b) wish to proof yourself, ie. “authors are smart too, you know”, or c) this is probably unintended, but, make me feel like if I had been an expert in astronomy, I would have probably found fault with every sentence you wrote.
- Since I do not get to complain about sex at this stage in the book, I will say that I dislike the way the relationship of Max and Onno towards women in general and towards Ada is depicted. Especially in the scenes that feature Max, women are simply tools and bodies. And Ada, in the story, until now, has never had much ‘agency’, things just happen to her, she accepts them, or goes along, and that’s it. Even in scenes that apparently should convey her taking initiative “Would you mind if I cleaned your room, Onno” she is portrayed as not knowing why she said it, not knowing whether she even wanted to say it, it just happened. [Of course, this might be the angel deciding things again, who knows?]
- Politics. Ah, Mulisch, and your Cuban dreams. If you weren’t so steadfast in your sympathies, I might even smile at them. Look back at this and think “Ah, but all of the intellectuals in the Netherlands back in the day (the seventies) used to think communism was great, that there was no fault to find with Lenin, even if Stalin might have killed a few too many, and that Cuba was the way every state should be.” So maybe I should praise Mulisch’s sense in that he did portray the Soviet Union as “a little grey”, but really, Cuba as the blossoming flower of communism, where communism everywhere else is failing? I am not right-wing, I vote left on the Dutch spectrum of politics, which to many in the US would be “communist”, but I cannot see how Mulisch could be so blind to the cruelties of communism, while claiming to be an intellectual.
This is not to say I hated what I have read so far. I did not. Actually, the style and language flow beautifully, most of the time. You know, when Mulisch doesn’t go on about the one book written by this one obscure German author. High expectations, after loving this book so much the first time, might have played part in my initial disappointment as well. I am, also, fascinated to see how this goes on, because I can really only remember the story up to halfway the second part of the book. I just had to write my problems down, before moving around them. Which in a way, I have been able to do during the second 100 pages of this first part. But I could never really completely let go of my frustrations.
How do you feel about The Discovery of Heaven so far? Did you enjoy it more than I did? What did you like, what didn’t you like?
I am also curious about the flow of the English translation. It is said to be a little messy in places? I am reading the Dutch edition, because it is the one I owned before starting this read along, but I did notice that there are a lot of specifically Dutch words, for Dutch political movements (“provo”) for example, which may not translate well?