The Discovery of Heaven – Harry Mulisch

You probably know I’m Dutch which would make it fairly obvious to write about Dutch writers and perhaps to be prejudiced. Well, maybe you’ve got a point but just keep on reading and hopefully you will fall in love with Harry Mulisch’ book The Discovery of Heaven as much as I did.

The book is called Harry Mulisch’ magnus opus and I fully agree. It is a tale that is breathtaking, daring and beyond the reach and boundries of human living. There is a Plan, which is being discussed among angels and set to influence several people’s lives in order to regain the Stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments that God had given Moses. There has to be born some special messenger who has to have all the necessary qualifications to be able to accomplish such a difficult task.


In order to secure that this messenger will be born on earth, a series of events are planned to ensure that the leading characters Onno and Max meet and become friends for life, upto loving the same woman Ada. They each come from completely different backgrounds: where Onno is born in the Netherlands into a political family that is highly Conservative, is Max a child from both a German officer and Jewish woman. Both the men are born in 1933, so you can see why that combination of Max’ parents would be very dangerous in the German pre-war and World War II years.

The woman they both fell in love with is Ada, she’s born in 1946 and has Dutch parents. After her father dies, she and her mother live above a little bookshop but Ada’s passion is the cello and she is quite good at it. One day Onno and Max enter the bookshop and Max and Ada fall in love. Where Max is Ada’s first love, he in turn has never had a lasting relationship in his life, no wonder that theirs is also not going to last. When Max leaves, Onno takes his place, so to say. Onno, the serious one of the two men, deeply falls in love with Ada. Upon Max’s return, he accepts the fact that Onno and Ada are a couple, they stay close friends and the three of them decide to take a trip to Cuba.

There the plot the angels have woven comes together: somehow they have arranged that both the brilliant Onno and the astronomist Max will attribute to the conceiving of a child, born from Ada. The trip to Cuba therefore leads not only to Ada being pregnant but has also certain consequences for Onno’s political career. Events start happening, from a terrible accident to the birth of Quinten, officially Onno’s son but with crystal clear blue eyes that always make Onno wonder…

The Dutch bookcover

Follow Onno, Max and Quinten on their path through life, maybe not always together but the strong bands of friendship and love that bind keep them connected. Where the angels are plotting to make their plans go accordingly and keep in mind their ultimate goal of retrieving the Tablets, the humans follow the paths that is laid before them. This leads them through space and time, in the years following there are several countries to be visited until eventually everything ends in Jerusalem. On the way each discovers the life that he must lead, the influence the past has on their lives and how to accept all this for themselves.

The tale left me breathless and touched, only being able to think what a great book this is, a true masterpiece, wherein the lives we human lead are being influenced by not only the past, but also the angels in the sky. If you do not believe in angels, in a form of God, in the Ten Commandments, not to worry: the story is one of adventure and philosophy, in itself worth reading and everyone has to feel free to interpret and think whatever he/she wants to think. As long as the book is being read, being talked about and thought about.

Because that is what will keep the author alive. Even after death (2010) Harry Mulisch is a great Dutch author, with his 1982 novel The Assault adapted for film as well as this 1992 book The Discovery of Heaven. Mulisch referred to himself as ‘being WW II’, being the son of an Austrian-Hungarian father and a Jewish mother, living in the Netherlands. The attentive reader will find both in Onno and Max some characteristics belonging to Mulisch, it was said that this book has certain biographical elements. So come with me to the Netherlands and dive into the mind of this great Dutch author by reading his wonderful masterpiece The Discovery of Heaven!

Harry Mulisch (1927-2010)



One Comment Add yours

  1. This is a masterpiece. I read in the German translation in the early 1990s and named it the best book I’ve read for years to come. It’s still with me. A real gem. I also read one of his shorter novels “The Assault(?)” set in Nazi occupied Holland. A very gifted writer!


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