Upon its publication in 1992 The Discovery of Heaven was hailed as Harry Mulisch's magnum opus. In 2007 it was voted the best Dutch novel of all time based on an internet poll organized by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. I bought one of the many reprints when it was first published, but I never got around to reading it. I read four of his novels (De Aanslag, Twee Vrouwen, Het Stenen Bruidsbed and Archibald Strohalm) when I was at high school and that was enough Mulisch for me. Harry Mulisch passed away the other week and with tributes all over the Dutch media I thought I'd finally read it.
The Discovery of Heaven tells the story of two men and a woman whose lives are manipulated by two angels with the purpose of returning to Heaven the stone tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments.
It is quite an uneven novel. It is divided in four parts: The Beginning of the Beginning, The End of the Beginning, The Beginning of the End and The End of the End. The first two parts are a brilliant evocation of the Netherlands in the 1960s and 70s and a moving portrait of a friendship between two men. The final part, which recounts the search for the stone tablets, surpasses even Enid Blyton's The Famous Five series as the events become ever more fantastic. There's even some tinkering with a lock!
Harry Mulisch had the annoying habit of composing his novels in such a way that every detail is somehow significant and The Discovery of Heaven is no exception. An accidental meeting between two persons is never accidental and a seemingly innocuous incident is bound to have severe repercussions 300 pages later. The third part of The Discovery of Heaven serves as one big set-up for the fourth and final part in which everything that went before falls into place.
Having said so, if you're a fan of Umberto Eco you might enjoy The Discovery of Heaven.