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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction/essay

De toekomst van gisteren

("The Future of Yesterday")

Harry Mulisch

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Title: De toekomst van gisteren
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Report
Written: 1972
Length: 251 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Die Zukunft von gestern - Deutschland
  • De toekomst van gisteren: Protokol van een schrijverij
  • De toekomst van gisteren has not been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

A : fascinating, rich, multi-faceted report on an unwritten novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       What might be translated as The Future of Yesterday has not been translated -- that or any other way. We try to hold our tongues about American (and, regrettably, now also UK) publishers, but the fact that one of the foremost (and most prolific) authors of the post war period (and our top contender for the Nobel Prize) has had less than half a dozen of his works translated into English (of which only three are readily available) is beyond embarrassing.
       Mulisch is not an easy author, and his politics might make him suspect to Americans -- his staid radicalism does not fit neatly into leftist or rightist pigeonholes. Philosophical, literate, acutely aware of history -- and decidedly European in character -- he may not be completely accessible, but his work still has a great deal to offer. Instead, apparently, he finds himself rubbing people -- misguided, ignorant people -- the wrong way with books such as The Discovery of Heaven (with its divine vision).
       De toekomst van gisteren is a report about a book not written. The book -- The Future of Yesterday -- was to be a novel set in a world where the Nazis had won the war, and in which an author writes a novel whose premise is that the Allies won the war ..... Not the most original of concepts, but Mulisch was working on the book in the early 1960's -- Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is the only similarly themed book conceived that early, while Robert Harris' Fatherland, Stephen Fry's Making History, and many of the other similar books were still decades off. Mulisch also did not, ultimately, write the book, though he does give a fairly detailed synopsis. (It certainly had the potential of being a decent book.)
       What Mulisch presents in the stead of the proposed novel is an account of how he came to conceive of the idea and why he ultimately could not complete it. As in several of his other non-fiction works there is a strong autobiographical element here, as Mulisch describes his fascinating World War II experiences. Born in 1927 he was a teen during the war years, and while his mother was Jewish his father was a collaborator, of sorts, working for the occupying Germans (a means of protecting wife and son who were obviously at risk). The experiences and the unusual confused life of an adolescent coming of age in the turbulent war and post-war years, his father interred for years after the war, the intellectually precocious but unfocussed Mulisch trying to find his place in a nation unsure of itself or its future, all marked Mulisch's later life and career as a writer, layers revealed over the course of many of his works. One of the many titbits here: fascinated by chemistry, failing in high school, the Nazis rumored to be near defeat, Mulisch spends day after day copying out, word for word, a thousand page chemistry textbook in an almost deserted library (the only other person who is regularly there the librarian, the son of the great Lorentz), an obsessive task as means of getting through this period, of dealing with knowledge in a time where fact becomes almost meaningless. The notebooks pile up as he writes and he writes: now he does not even recall the name of the author of the textbook.
       Mulisch's trenchant analysis of various elements of Nazism alone make the book worthwhile. He does not need the alternate-history scenario to explain himself, but it helps in driving home his hard points. His juxtaposition of Nazism and America is perhaps less welcome by touchy Americans. Written in 1972, the account cannot get around Viet Nam: we think it colors the book effectively, others might call it a taint.
       For Mulisch the book he conceived revolves around the two choices of history: the technological, where war is fought by machines, anonymously: the American example, symbolized by the atomic bomb (the world we do, in fact, live in). The opposite is the Nazi example, where killing is almost literally by hand (in the gas chambers), where there is no interest in technological advancement, where the idea of the 1000-year Reich is, more accurately, of a 0-year Reich, a timeless one in which there is no progress (the one he sets his alternate present in).
       In the proposed novel the atom bomb becomes the symbol for the crimes against humanity that we now consider the Nazi's attempted extermination of the Jews to be. Built by Jews, the clearest manifestation of the Marxist-Jewish conspiracy that Hitler warned of, Mulisch has the scientists responsible killed in the alternate-Nürnberg trials -- all except Oppenheimer, who escapes and is only caught years later, then also to be publicly hanged (an Eichmann echo). It is a plot twist to send shivers up one's spine.
       Mulisch describes a meeting with Speer (who had read and agreed with Mulisch's famous book on the Eichmann trial) and travels to Germany (East -- where he seeks out the house where Nietzsche died -- and West) but none of this finally allows him to actually tell the tale as he imagined it. Politics and events take over as the 60's roar to their Parisian climax (with Mulisch watching from the periphery), moments where the novel seems possible. It was, finally, not meant to be. Regardless, Mulisch has created an important and marvelously readable document. It is of philosophical, social, historical, political, and literary significance.

       This book is highly recommended. The fact that it is not available in English presents obvious problems, but Dutch is not that difficult a language to learn .....

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Reviews: 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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