Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book 151, Netherlands: "The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch

I'm in Greece! Physically, not reading-wise. On a little jaunt to see as much of Europe as I can before my lease runs out.

Reading-wise, I'm finally done with my Netherlands book, and what a joy it was. I'd had a tough time deciding on what to pick - I'd read the most famous book in Dutch, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, and the next most classic works - the 17th century playwright Joost van den Vondel's Lucifer and the 19th century novelist Multatuli's Max Havelaar, weren't actually set in the Netherlands.

Fortunately,a simple Google search with the terms "greatest Dutch novel" threw up the results of an official 2007 survey of what the people of the Netherlands regard as their greatest work in the form -and then all I had to do was apply for an Interlibrary Loan for this volume, and ta-da!

It's 730 pages long, but guess what? It's worth it. Especially if you're one of those semi-cynic, semi-mystic folks like me, who indulge in the guilty pleasures of reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code because it does after all spin a thriller out of Templar secrets, and who similarly enjoyed Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum because of the way it draws on the Gnostic past for mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all our efforts to build conspiracy theories of divinity are absurd...

The Discovery of Heaven is like that, only more epic, because it takes place over several generations - oh, and did I mention it's narrated by angels? Its prologue and intermezzos are made up of a dialogue between two ruthless angels trying to chart Humankind's course for the sake of the Chief (i.e. God), which is why they direct the strange coincidences of the tale.

What actually happens in the story is that Max, an astrophysicist, meets Onno, an amateur cryptographer. They discover they were conceived at the same time and become BFFs - companions in mind because of their commonly esoteric intellectualisms (there's loads of factoid-laden digressions here, with snippets of Latin and German thrown in, because Onno just happens to speak like, every language). But the angels' plan is to have them both - in a way - to be fathers of a new sort-of-Messiah...

And on the way there are lovers (female) of different ages, a journey to 1960s Cuba and to 1980s Israel, and loads of angst about the Netherlands' complicity in the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s - hell, Max's observatory is built at Westerbork, one of the transit camps for the Jews on their way to extermination. Oh yes, and a Messiah named Quinten, with sapphire eyes and a weirdly innocent intelligence that can be a little annoying (it's clearly put in place so that other characters can explain the minutiae of the Bible and lock-picking and classical architecture for the readers, but I do think that given his genius lineage, he would've figured it out for himself).

You can see I'm trying not to give away too many spoilers, because I do think this is a book worth picking up for yourselves. Basically, I'm glad I've had this opportunity on my round-the-world trip to sample one of those high literary works that's also a pacy crowd-pleaser - the Holy Grail for literary agents, so I'm told. Gotta learn how to write that stuff myself.

One last thing of note: there's quite a few mentions of the Netherlands' Indonesian population, especially of the Moluccans. Turns out many of the Moluccans fought for the Dutch against the Indonesians during the War for Independence - so they had to seek refuge in the Netherlands afterwards. They were actually housed in Westerbork, despite the spot's genocidal legacy - and were forced out of their huts to assimilate in none too ceremonious a fashion.

And another thing - Vondel and Multaluti both get a mention in the book. Yessir, this volume is all-encompassing. That's what you can do with 730 pages.  And if you're too impatient for that, catch the 2001 film, starring Stephen Fry. Or at least the Brows Held High review thereof.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Once he stood motionless on the balcony looking at the balustrade, at the gray stone banister on the wooden amphora-shaped pillars. Max squatted down beside him to see if there was perhaps an insect walking among them; but only when Quinten carefully put his forefinger on a certain spot did he see that there was a tiny, fossilized trilobite, from the Paleozoic period, about 300 million years old. At the same moment he realized that the creature that Quinten had discovered had lived at about the moment that the extragalactic cluster in constellation of Coma Berenices - "Berneice's Hair" - had emitted the light that was now reaching earth.

Quinten looked at him.

"That's a trilobite," said Max, "a kind of silver fish. What would you like? Shall we free it?"

Next book: Henri Michaux's Darkness Moves, from Belgium.

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