Life, the universe and everything

George Walden wrestles with the Big Ideas in a sprawling Dutch landscape

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, translated by Paul Vincent, Viking, pounds 17

In Italian religious painting, unity between the upper and lower levels is often assured by abstracting the earthly (for example, through idealised figures) and humanising the sublime (as in those smirking putti). So heaven and earth are made to intermingle in an aesthetic whole. Relating the natural to the supernatural, the top to the bottom of the canvas, is more challenging in literature, where there are fewer ready-made conventions. This is the task that the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch squares up to unflinchingly in his new novel, The Discovery of Heaven.

We begin in the top half, with a prologue introducing us to the deities who contrive the book's plot. Their status is ambivalent. Only loosely in touch with "The Chief", they are Olympian figures with human characteristics: a sort of board of management through whose malignity, indifference or incompetence the world's affairs have got out of hand. Ever since the scientific revolution, personified here by Francis Bacon, things have been going to the bad. In a last, nihilistic throw the Olympian powers send an agent whose mission it is to cast humanity loose. The management's attitude to life on earth is literally "to hell with it". We have no God and an overweening science - the echoes of Nietzsche and Faust are clear enough though the Olympians now chat about the Double Helix and DNA.

Getting to the birth and activation of the agent takes up the first, most satisfactory part of the book. As the plot is a contrivance of the Gods, so too are the characters, who symbolise every aspect of human nature. Max Delius and Onno Quist are friends. Max is an astronomer, Onno a philologist. Yet each also embodies his opposite. Max is a womanising hedonist as well as a disciplined scientist, Onno the offspring of a well-heeled family who despises money. "Like two mirrors reflecting one another", their complementarity is secured by the discovery that they were conceived on the same day. Max's parents are presented in similar contrapuntal fashion. His Jewish mother was deported to Auschwitz, his German-speaking father executed for collaboration in occupied Holland.

Given this Yin and Yang characterisation, it is a miracle that Mulisch tells us a story we want to read; but to begin with, he does. Max falls for Ada, a cellist, who leaves him for Onno, who loses her back to Max for a single act of water-borne coition. Its product is Quentin, the infant prodigy and unsuspecting agent of the celestial mis-managers. (Given that Ada makes haste to sleep with Onno, we cannot be too sure about this.)

The conception of Quentin takes place, symbolically, in Cuba in 1968. Yet the account of Max, Onno and Ada's stay in this paradise that was to fail is as flat and dated as Onno's later experiences as a Dutch politician. The matter-of-fact language and lack of imaginative power contrast with the chapter in which Max visits Auschwitz - no novelty, either, but an event to which Mulisch brings genuinely fine writing and true emotional force: "Even in heaven eternal bliss would be possible only by the grace of a criminal loss of memory."

Themes of forgetting recur, sometimes naturally, more often by unsubtle artifice. Ada vegetates for five years after a road accident following her return from Cuba and never recovers consciousness. Quentin is born, as befits his mission, by Caesarian section.

His appearance should bring a new ascent in our interest. Instead, it marks the onset of a slow decline. He is a beautiful, unearthly and cerebral child, yet fey, precocious children can be horribly tiresome. As slow to speak as Einstein (his first word is "obelisk"), he is given to uncanny insights, one of which inspires in Max a new theory of space and time. Space and time then turn against Max, who in an accident (and another break with the book's more naturalistic first half) is struck dead by a meteorite. This is a pity: Max is a sympathetic human agent in a novel whose feet are rapidly leaving the ground, and we miss him.

Quentin dreams of citadels, but his mission is irredeemably destructive. In a long adventure sequence straight from Tintin, he steals the tablets of Moses from the Lateran Chapel and takes them to Jerusalem. The stones crumble to nothing, leaving humanity adrift. Quentin returns to his spiritual home.

In the epilogue one of the Gods, deciding to leave things there, quotes Goethe's words: "Restriction shows the master's hand". Mulisch would have done well to apply them to himself. To say this novel is intellectually ambitious is an understatement. Instead of taking on heaven and earth, it should have restricted itself to the lower canvas. Transcendental messages come across more powerfully if they eschew the supernatural.

Here, the problem of unity of tone is not so much unresolved as scarcely tackled. One moment Mulisch is telling a story in plain, old-fashioned oils, the next he is laying on all manner of colours in startling acrylics. He makes claims to omniscience in more than the authorial sense, and there are many diverting ideas and instructive passages. However, much of his knowledge is thrown at us raw, with a surfeit of facts and theories and a deficiency of artistry.

A novel of this scope and length is destined to be greeted either as the millennarian work of Big Ideas we have all been waiting for, or as a pretentious failure. This is unfair, but the risk is inherent in the enterprise. A work purporting to give an all-embracing view of the human condition cannot be only partially successful.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss