Discovery of Heaven

I recently completed Discovery of Heaven, by Harry Mulisch. The book is a philosophical/theological novel that covers some pretty major themes first in human relationships and modern culture, but then also in considering the role of the supernatural in a modern world that typically denies any supernatural reality.

The background of the novel has two angels in dialogue about a plan they have been working on—a plan that involves a final interaction with the increasingly self-sufficient modern world

What drew me into this novel was the story itself. The narrative begins by tracing the friendship of two men, one an astronomer (Max) and the other an academic-turned politician (Onno). Together they not only display a constant intellectual banter that challenges the reader to reflect on many different important themes, but they also experience several adventures (told in vivid and usually humorous form by Mulisch) that pull the reader along through all 700+ pages. And eventually, through a bizarre set of circumstances (influenced by the angels), these men end up raising a son, Quinten.

And it is Quinten who is ultimately the person whom the angels use for their final interaction with modern world. Experiencing a recurring dream throughout his childhood, Quinten realizes at a young age that he was born for a particular purpose, even if he doesn’t know what that purpose is. And so in his teen years, Quinten decides to travel to Italy on the quest to fulfill this purpose (Having recently traveled Italy, I especially appreciated Mulisch’s colorful descriptions of Italian architecture and culture). The narrative eventually takes Quinten to Rome where he uncovers the special purpose of his life, culminating in an event that signifies, essentially, the cutoff of supernatural interaction with the world and thus the completion of the angel’s plan.

What drew me into this novel was both Mulisch’s excellent descriptive writing and ability to weave a story. And while both characters and events are at times far-fetched, the truths that are represented make these situations somehow believable, if not for the simple fact the reader cannot help but see that the story presents much of what we experience in modern culture.

For someone who holds out hope that God still interacts in our world the end of the book was somewhat depressing. Yet the reality of humanity’s hardening towards supernatural interaction—whether that be through science, art, music, or otherwise—was a sobering reminder of how modern culture has come to see itself as the pinnacle of reality—sufficient unto itself.

In my opinion, any novel that walks the line between entertaining prose and profound themes related to the human experience is worth reading. With this criteria then, Discovery of Heaven is without a doubt a must-read.

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