The Discovery of Heaven

Harry Mulisch

translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
Penguin 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
Onno, an amateur philologist obsessed by the Phaistos Disk, comes from one of the Netherland's leading political families. Max, a womanising radio astronomer, is the son of a collaborator who was executed after the Second World War. An unlikely pair brought together by chance — or angelic intervention — they immediately strike up a firm friendship. When Max meets Ada, a cellist, she is not just one of his usual girlfriends, but it is Onno who ends up marrying her. Ada goes to Cuba to perform and Onno and Max accompany her — they are mistaken for delegates to a revolutionary forum — and it is not clear which of them is the father of Quinten, born nine months later.

After a car accident leaves Ada in a coma, Quinten is brought up by Max and Ada's mother Sophia, in a country castle which they share with an unusual assortment of tenants. Among them are a locksmith, an architect, and a philologist, who have just the skills to train Quinten for the task for which he has been brought into the world. For that he must find Onno, who has first become involved in politics and then become a kind of hermit, and the two of them must travel first to Rome and then to Jerusalem — to undo the covenant God made with man. The Discovery of Heaven is set within a framing story in which one angel reports to another on how events have been manipulated to this end, to bring Quinten into the world and then to lead him to his goal — with some extra work to dispose of pesky astronomers who discover too much about the universe.

The Discovery of Heaven is a novel of ideas on a large scale, sprawling across science, religion, architecture, politics and more. Though intellectual in its preoccupations, it is never didactic: ideas are integrated with the plot and characters and never allowed to get in the way of the story. The overall tone is also light-hearted, though it never lapses into the comic. And Mulisch never pushes any of the ideas too far — at least, none of the science made me wince, though I'm pretty sensitive to misuse of scientific ideas.

These strong points, however, are paralleled by some obvious criticisms that can be levelled at The Discovery of Heaven. It is shallow, never treating any of its subjects at length, or that seriously. The theology of the framing story may trouble some and, though I never found suspension of disbelief a problem, having angels intervene to manage the plot is too easy. And the character range is limited: the principal characters all have lives centred on ideas (Quinten is a typically unconvincing child prodigy), none of the female characters are at all substantial, and many of the strongest elements are autobiographical.

If you're after a large but lively novel of ideas, however, held together by an engaging story, then I highly recommend The Discovery of Heaven.

March 2003

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Harry Mulisch - The Assault
- more Dutch literature
%T The Discovery of Heaven
%A Mulisch, Harry
%M Dutch
%F Vincent, Paul
%I Penguin
%D 1997
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0140239375
%P 730pp