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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Discovery of Heaven

Harry Mulisch

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To purchase The Discovery of Heaven

Title: The Discovery of Heaven
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 1996)
Length: 728 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Discovery of Heaven - US
The Discovery of Heaven - UK
The Discovery of Heaven - Canada
Die Entdeckung des Himmels - Deutschland
La Découverte du ciel - France
  • Dutch title: De ontdekking van de hemel
  • Translated by Paul Vincent
  • Awarded the Prix Jean Monet de Literature Européenne, 1999
  • Made into a film in 2001, directed by Jeroen Krabbé and with Stephen Fry as Onno. See official The Discovery of Heaven site and IMDb page for more information

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Our Assessment:

A+ : a big, demanding book, clever and hugely entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commonweal B 6/6/1997 Molly Finn
The LA Times . 10/11/1996 Richard Eder
The New Yorker A 25/11/1996 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books A- 6/3/1997 J.M. Coetzee
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 5/1/1997 Jack Miles
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A+ Summer/1997 Irving Malin
The Spectator B 26/4/1997 Alberto Manguel
TLS . 18/4/1997 Richard Todd
Wall Street Journal A 30/10/1996 Jamie James
The Washington Post . 27/10/1996 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Most hold it to be very well-written, though some think the angel-speak is terrible. Most like the grand vision, but a fair number thought Mulisch was overly ambitious and many obviously took offense at Mulisch tackling theological (i.e. taboo) subjects.

  Note that J.M.Coetzee's review is in a class by itself: the only one familiar with a large part of Mulisch's oeuvre and his life he is the only one who shows a proper understanding of author and work in evaluating the text.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Discovery of Heaven is an ebullient, cheeky, exhaustive and sometimes exhausting philosophical novel about the failure of the Creation. It is a Paradise Lost turned upside down and Lucifer wins. It is the largest and most ambitious work of Harry Mulisch (.....) The plot lines are palimpsests. The moral, spiritual and intellectual disorders of modern life doodle graffiti across every scene. (...) Immensely wordy, Discovery repeatedly redeems itself through its faith in words. It is a compendium of just about everything Mulisch knows; it is his book of the world." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though the plot sounds hectic in summary, in its unfolding it discloses many intellectually provocative turns and much depth of sympathy. (...) Written carefully and ingeniously by a novelist who is also a poet, the many pages speed by." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Although I have read this erudite, witty masterpiece only once, I must assert that it is one of the great novels since World War II." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(I)n the last few pages, this complex and moving story, finely woven and intelligently embroidered, comes unravelled. Mulisch seems to have been seduced not by the mysteries of faith but by the anecdotes of Sunday school." - Alberto Manguel, The Spectator

  • "Still, it is not Vincent but rather Viking which must be held responsible for the least satisfactory aspects of The Discovery of Heaven. The editing is sloppy; misprints abound; (...) British-English slang and expletives have been kept, while other American-English usages have been arbitrarily superimposed, and the whole irritatingly tin-eared cisatlantic mix does a disservice to this exhilarating, magnificent and dangerous book." - Richard Todd, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)t once fearlessly profound and engrossingly readable. In some ways, the book bears a closer affinity with epic poetry than with the late-20th-century novel: Like Homer, Dante and Milton, Harry Mulisch takes as his setting the cosmos, and his theme is the history and meaning of everything." - Jamie James, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Discovery of Heaven is a big book. Ambitious, comprehensive, it is Mulisch's magnum opus -- a fact difficult to appreciate in the English-language world, where so little of Mulisch's work is available. Published (in Holland) in 1992 it has 65 chapters -- one for each of Mulisch's 65 years in 1992 -- and it is a summing up of his life. One of the central characters -- Max Delius -- though born in 1933 in the novel is Mulisch's fictional opposite. Delius' father is a Nazi collaborator, sentenced to death after the war, Delius' Jewish mother is sent to the extermination camps -- they are Mulisch's own parents, thinly disguised, taken to extremes. (Mulisch's father was interred after the war but eventually released, his mother was Jewish but not deported (in part because of the protection Mulisch's father's collaboration offered).)
       The Discovery of Heaven is, vaguely, a theological novel. Theology is one of its conceits, god and his minions central characters. There are four sections to the novel, each opening with a conversation between two angels. It seems that Lucifer entered into a pact with mankind, buying its soul through its representative, Francis Bacon, in the 16th century. Modern science, with its roots there, has now usurped the place of the heavens. One of the heavenly creatures has now been charged with settling things with mankind: the supreme being has decided that mankind, unravelling DNA, is coming too close to the province of the heavens, to understanding what its all about, and so the covenant between heaven and earth no longer holds. To formally break it god wants his tablets -- the original covenant -- back. To retrieve them he must find the perfect messenger, and this is what the angels set about doing.
       (Not the world's simplest premise, and one which seems to rub the theologically minded the wrong way.)
       The paths of two men, born on the same day in 1933, are allowed to cross: the astronomer Max Delius and Onno Quist, a lawyer turned philologist (who later becomes a politician). They become the best of friends and fall in love with same woman, who is also directed into their path by heavenly forces, the cellist Ada Brons. Onno wins her hand, but it does not cause a rift between the two men. Ada is invited to perform in Cuba and both Max and Onno accompany her. She sleeps with Max there, and then with Onno, so that, if (i.e. when) she gets pregnant paternity will not be clear.
       Back in Holland the three of them get in a car accident. The men are unhurt, but Ada falls into a coma from which she will never wake. Eventually a child is delivered: Quinten, the chosen one. (This complicated set-up seems a bit ... complicated, but those are the ways of the gods, we suppose.)
       Onno can not deal with being a father and the child is in fact raised by Max and Ada's mother. Quinten is to find the tablets, and his two fathers continue to play a role in helping him get there, first Max, the Onno. As he nears and then achieves his set task the book takes on more of an adventurous tone.
       Philosophical, political, to an extent theological, the novel is also an excellent narrative in and of itself. The big themes do threaten to weigh the book down on occasion (enough critics complain about this that it must be taken as a valid complaint, though we did not find it a problematic aspect of the novel). We read with bated breath throughout. Our summary cannot do justice to the book: there is so much more to it. All of Mulisch's favourite subjects are well-covered: philosophy, sex, the holocaust, politics. And he has moved considerably beyond most of his previous work in encompassing so much in a single text.
       We think this is a superb book, we recommend it highly. We do warn readers that it is a big, weighty tome, covering the big themes -- something that is not always appreciated by everyone. But Mulisch tells an engaging and often funny tale. Give it a try.

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The Discovery of Heaven: Reviews: The Discovery of Heaven - the movie: Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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