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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.