The Discovery of Heaven

'De ontdekking van de hemel' is Harry Mulisch’s magnum opus. All the paths he has taken in his previous work come together in this 900-page novel. The book has 65 chapters, one for each of Mulisch’s years at the time of the novel’s publication. Mulisch, with his hang for numerological symbolism, has given a first hint of the book’s autobiographical nature. In the two main characters, Max Delius and Onno Quist, the reader can recognise much of Mulisch and his deceased friend, the chess player, Jan Hein Donner.

Original title
De ontdekking van de hemel
Harry Mulisch

The two men are each other’s opposites. Max is an astronomer, an extrovert and an erotomaniac; Onno is a linguist, withdrawn and under the thumb of his girlfriend. When they meet each other in 1967 they immediately become intimate friends.

When Max meets the cellist Ada Brons a spanner seems to have got into the works: for the first time the irrepressible womaniser has a longer relationship. But things go wrong between the two of them. Several months later Ada has become Onno’s girlfriend but that doesn’t stop her making love to Max one last time-drunk on the beach in Cuba. A complicated three-way relationship is born and becomes even more complicated when, on Ada’s return to the Netherlands, it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. Then fate intervenes: as a result of a traffic accident Ada goes into a permanent coma. The child can still be born by Caesarian section, but whether Quinten Quist is Max’s or Onno’s son remains a mystery. Quinten reveals himself at an early age as a boy with special gifts. An angel appears to him in a dream and gives him the task of searching for the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, finding them and bringing them back to heaven. An adult Quinten eventually reaches Jerusalem where an exciting and overwhelming denouement takes place.

'De ontdekking van de hemel' is a novel of unusual magnitude and greatness. Dust off the laurel wreath; Mulisch has earned it. Hats off.


In De ontdekking van de hemel Mulisch pulls out all the stops and writes on all possible levels: heavenly and earthly, ironic and philosophical, archaic and futuristic, scientific and poetic. The struggle between good and evil, the myth of Oedipus, the Second World War, Cuba: almost every subject Mulisch has ever touched upon falls into place here in a way that is both ingenious and natural. The violent occurrences are sometimes shocking, sometimes they evoke sheer amazement, but nowhere does the story lose its grip on the reader. That is partly due to Mulisch’s sense of humour which is as infectious as it is wilful. The dialogue is sharp and spirited and alternates well with the more descriptive passages in which Mulisch subjects his characters to adventures which are, to put it mildly, dizzying – just as everything about this book is dizzying. De ontdekking van de hemel can already be called a classic: an epic that stands alone in contemporary Dutch letters.

A rare stroke of luck for contemporary literature, it combines the virtues of intelligence and entertainment value – a masterpiece.


No novelist in recent times has depicted the crisis in modern industrial society so accurately, and certainly not in such an extremely entertaining and witty way.

Der Tagespiegel
Harry Mulisch
Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) was born on July 29, 1927 in Haarlem to a Jewish mother and a half-German, half-Austrian father. After his parents divorced in 1937, he was raised by his father’s German housekeeper. The father was joint director of a banking firm which was a repository for stolen Jewish funds.
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