Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Discovery of Heaven Readalong - Parts 1 and 2

(warning: the summary below may contain spoilers)

  I've stepped a little bit out of my comfort zone and joined the readalong of The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, hosted by Iris On Books.  I am sadly not well acquainted with Dutch literature, so despite this book being over 900 pages, I thought this readalong would be a good beginning.
  When I read the introduction, however, I almost stopped before I began.  Two omniscient-type beings (angels?) are discussing the arrangement of certain events to happen in order for the novel's two main characters - Max Delius and Onno Quist - to meet, which is apparently essential for some reason.  I didn't understand this at all, but I kept reading.

  And Max and Onno do meet, seemingly at random on a dark road:  Max stops his car to offer Onno a lift.  After some discussion they realize that they were likely conceived on the same date in 1933 (this seems important based on the introduction) and from that point on the men become virtually inseparable; this despite the fact they have little else in common.  Onno is a linguist of sorts with a dysfunctional relationship with his prominent family; Max is an astronomer and a womanizer, the son of a Jewish mother and a German father who sent the mother (his wife) to her certain death in the camps during World War II.

  Then Max meets Ada, a young cellist, and that is where the story gets interesting.  She's with Max, then with Onno, then she gets pregnant while the three of them are in Cuba.  Either Max or Onno could be the father of her child, but only Onno is unaware of this (at least to this point in the novel).  As Onno claims paternity, he marries Ada and prepares to "settle down" into a life he did not expect.

  BUT, as the three are driving to Leiden to see to Ada's father who has suffered a heart attack, they are caught in a violent storm and a tree falls onto the car, seriously injuring Ada.  She in fact is brain dead and is  kept alive for the sake of her unborn child.  The decision falls then to Onno to how he wants "his" child to be raised; as he is a rising politician and the era is the late 1960s it is not expected for him to take on the responsibility of raising his own child, so various branches of his family tree make their case to be the baby's caregiver.  In another twist, however, Max and Ada's mother, Sophia - who have begun a strange relationship if I do say so myself - offer to raise the child for Onno and he accepts wholeheartedly.

  That's where I am so far in the book, and yes, it does seem really strange when summarized like this.  Yet as a narrative it makes sense.  After that bizarre introduction, there is a story, and though it too is bizarre, it moves along well with enough suspense and twists to keep me reading further.  I can't say that I like any of the characters (yet), although I do find Max the most interesting because at least to this point we know the most about him and his backstory and what he has done to attempt to understand his past. 

And of course though it is set in the Netherlands (with some brief sojourns to Cuba and Eastern Europe so far) by a Dutch writer, I wonder if there is anything else that defines this as a Dutch novel.  If anyone has read this or any other Dutch literature I'd love to hear your thoughts (and recommendations on other books to check out)

Judith at leeswammes is also participating in the readalong:  Read her thoughts on part 1 and part 2.


  1. I felt that for such an intellectual book, the amount of telenovela-wordy events is interesting. I'm more drawn towards Onno, probably because I feel he's the underdog on the novel :)

  2. This does sound like a really strange and unusual novel, but also quite intriguing to me. I can see where you would have been a bit confused as to what it was all going to be about having been confronted with that opening chapter! Great review on this one, and I hope that you enjoy it!

  3. Great summary of the story so far, Suzanne!

    I agree with you, I didn't really feel like reading on after the first bit (with the angels) but in fact the book has grown on me. I liked the second part better than the first.

    But where this all is going? Who knows?


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