The Discovery of Heaven

From Academic Kids

The Discovery of Heaven is a novel by the famous Dutch author Harry Mulisch. It describes the intense friendship between two men and the mystical journey of another to return to Heaven the stone tablets containing the ten commandments. The book is written with great humour (especially the first part), and displays the author's almost encyclopaedic knowledge of things, both trivial and otherwise.

In 2001, the novel was made into a film by Dutch director Jeroen Krabbé. The film features Stephen Fry as Onno and Flora Montgomery as Ada.



The Discovery of Heaven tells the story of an angel-like being, who is ordered to return to Heaven the stone tablets containing the ten commandments. This is the Arc of the Covenant, given to Moses by God, and in the book symbolizes the link between Heaven and Earth. The divine being, however, cannot himself travel to Earth, and on several occasions in the book resorts to influencing events, being in effect a deliberate personification of deus ex machina. He affects the personal lives of three people (two men, one woman), so that a child will be conceived. This child would then have an innate desire to seek out and return the Tablets.

The book consists of four parts, (poetically dubbed "The Beginning of the Beginning", "The End of the Beginning", "The Beginning of the End", and "The End of the End.") In between these four parts, the angel-like being discusses "The Plan" with his superior, who is supposedly an archangel.

The Beginning of the Beginning

The book begins with the angel reporting to his superior that 'the job is done', and begins to recount the events. He explains that after seventy years' work and planning, he has created a messenger to return the Tablets, and how, in order for the messenger to be conceived, he first needed to allow the birth of the messenger's parents. He then explains how the First and Second World War were instrumental in this. The messenger's father, Max Delius, was born out of a Jewish woman and a German officer in 1933. The messenger's mother is born in 1946 to Dutch parents, who also meet in WWII. A third man, Onno Quist is born into an age-old Dutch Conservative political family, also in the year 1933.

The angel makes the men, Onno and Max, meet in 1967. Onno has just left a family gathering and is in need of a ride to Amsterdam. By apparent chance to the characters, but clearly a deus ex machina-effect to the reader, Max is the one to give him a ride. They become friends: Onno and Max's personalities are highly complimentary. Onno is an introverted, rather arrogant and highly intelligent professional linguist. While Onno is trying to 'find God' in the Diskos of Phaistos, Max is trying to 'discover Heaven' through astronomy. A more extroverted, erotomanious astronomer, Max is haunted by his rather dark family history: Max' mother, a Jewish woman, was murdered in Auschwitz, on instigation of his father, an Austrian officer in the Wehrmacht. After the war his father was imprisoned, and later commited suicide. Max was consequently raised by foster parents.

Onno and Max' friendship reaches a high in the many vibrant conversations they have in Leiden and Amsterdam, in experiencing the revolution of the sixties. Their conversations are filled with great wit and intellect and hit many facets of life: science, history, politics, but especially religion and philosophy. Their friendship however absorbs them so much that it forces a break between Onno and his girlfriend, Helga.

During a walk in Leiden they come across a small bookshop. Here Max picks up Ada, the daughter of the owner and a gifted cellist. The two become three. Ada and Max fall in love. This is rather new for both of them: Ada, who is only twenty, loses her virginity to Max, who has never had a lasting relationship with a woman. Max, sex-crazy, can not stay faithful to Ada, and they break up. Next to that Max is haunted by his family history. Moved by Roma music, who too suffered from the Shoah, he goes to Auschwitz, Poland, to seek his parents' history. Ada and Onno, left alone by the sudden departure of Max, fall in love.

When Max returns he sees his best friend with his former girlfriend, but he accepts this change. Onno, meanwhile, has become deputy mayor for the Labour party in Amsterdam and begins his political career. Although nearly everything has changed their friendship still seems very strong.

The three of them then go to Cuba (where Castro has recently gained power, and is quite fashionable in the leftist elite), where Ada is asked to play the cello. On Cuba, Max and Onno are mistaken for the Dutch delegation to a revolutionary conference, which they attend more as a joke than anything else. On the last day of the island Onno is seduced by a Cuban beauty. Max is unable to suppress his feelings for Ada and makes love to her.

The end of the beginning

Back in the Netherlands, Ada finds out she is pregnant. The child was conceived on Cuba. She tells this to Onno, who then proposes to marry her, assuming the child is his. Max realizes the child might as well be his and decides to leave Ada and Onno, filled with feelings of guilt. After the marriage, he leaves for Westerbork,(a former concentration camp in the Netherlands, now hosting one of Europe's biggest radio telescopes). Onno and Ada still visit Max. On one of their visits to Westerbork, Ada is called by a Leiden hospital: her father has had a stroke. The three of them drive back to Leiden and are caught in bad weather. Their car crashes. Max and Onno are without a scratch. Ada, however, is badly hurt and falls into a coma, but the child has survived. Onno stays in the hospital. Max is sent to Leiden to inform the mother of Ada, Mrs (Sophie) Brons, about the events. He arrives in Leiden in the middle of the night. Mr Brons has died and Ada is in coma. Mrs Brons convinces Max that he must stay the night. Max and Mrs Brons sleep together. Max begins to vists Mrs Brons frequently. She is a two-sided woman, during the day she is cold and formal, during the night she is a warm-blooded woman. Ada and Onno's child still survives and needs a home. Onno can't take care of the child alone and he also has a bright political future. Max suggests to Mrs Brons that she move to Westerbork. Together they can raise Ada's child in Westenbork and continue their affair.

The beginning of the end

The child is born through Caesarean section. The child has the brightest blue eyes. Onno calls the child Quinten. Max and Mrs Brons move to an apartment near Westenbork in a former castle, now filled with artists and eccentrics. Quinten grows up to be a introverted, peaceful child as intelligent as his father(s). He is obsessed by architecture, ancient keys and obelisks. Onno, who is absorbed by his political career, only infrequently visits his son. Onno also returns to his old girlfriend, Helga. As Quinten grows up he is haunted by dreams of a strange other worldly place that has no outside but only an inside. This inside is filled with strange bridges, cranes and architecture. This fuels his interest in architecture and causes him to obsessively make drawings of this place. He also takes care of an old cemetery lot in the garden of the castle, where a racing horse is buried. He seems a rather strange child. Meanwhile Onno's political career is destroyed, when his visit to revolutionary Cuba is made public. His position within the Labour Party is unretainable and he is not promoted to minister of Defense. That same day his girlfriend is killed. With very little left to live for Onno decides to disappear. Max, meanwhile, has returned to his old tricks. He leaves Mrs Brons for another woman but still lives with her and Quinten. Scientifically he comes closer and closer to a big astronomical discovery. When he is on the verge of discovering heaven he is killed by a freak asteroid, sent from heaven by the Angel.

The end of the end

When Quinten turns 18 he decides to go and look for his father. Except for his mother and grandmother he has very little that binds him to Westerbork. He goes to Italy. He visits Venice and Florence but through meetings with strange people, he is forced to flee both cities. He ends up in Rome. In the Pantheon too he is approached by a strange man with a long beard and a raven on his shoulder. He realizes that it is his father. Onno has fled to Rome and has filled his life with his original quest to decipher the Diskos of Phaistos. Onno takes Quinten on a tour through Rome. Although they haven't seen each other in years their relationship is still close. Onno recognizes a lot of his friend, Max, in Quinten. When they visit the Lateran (one of Rome's holiest sights), Quinten is convinced that he remembers the place form his dreams and that the stone tablets are stored there. He becomes obsessed with the place and with the role of the stone tablets in Christianity and Judaism. After weeks of study, Quinten convinces his father to steal the stone tablet. One night they stay for too long in the Lateran and are locked in. With Quinten's study of ancient architecture and locksmithing and Onno's encyclopedic knowledge, they open the chapel of the Lateran and in a safe they find two stone tablets, grey slabs. Latter they learn that the slabs are made of a bright blue gem. They leave Rome with the first flight that leaves the city. This one flies to Tel Aviv, Israel. Onno and Quinten stay in Jerusalem and visit the city's sights including the Dome of the Rock, where the stone tablets were stored for ages when the Jews inhabited the city, before the Romans sacked the temple. After meeting an elderly woman who speaks Dutch, with very blue eyes and numbers tattooed on her arm, Onno realizes that she might be Max' mother and Quinten's grandmother. He goes out to tell Quinten. But he can not find him. In a state of distress he calls Mrs Brons. He learns that Ada has died, Mrs Brons, a former nurse has performed euthanasia. On the phone Onno gets a stroke. Quinten has gone into a hallucinative state. In a sort of dream world, filled with references to Judaic mysticism, he returns to the Dome of the Rock with the stone tablets. He meets his father's raven and the race horse, who burial place he kept. In the Dome of the Rock he ascends to heaven with the tablets.

Back in heaven, the Angel is commended for his deeds by the Archangel. The Angel however feels remorse for breaking the link between heaven and earth. But the situation is no longer in his control.


Harry Mulisch self said that this book is his magnum opus. It is his best known and best selling work. It is his fourth work to be made a movie. It includes all the major themes form his earlier work: the Second World War, the Shoah, the Students' revolt of the sixities, Judaism, Philosophy and Jewish and Classical Mysticism. The War is given purpose through the actions of the Angels, the Shoah remains a haunting dream for Mulisch. The students' revolt, of which Mulisch was an active participant, is described with much insight. Judaism, philosophy and mysticism are all blended in with more complexity than can be described here, especially in the discussions between the angels. It is however much more: The book is also a hommage to a friendship. Onno Quist is based on Hein Donner, a famous Dutch chessplayer and a close friend of Mulisch' who died some years before the Discovery of Heaven was published. He too came from a conservative political family and was a respected sight in Amsterdam's leftist elite. Max Delius resembles Mulisch. Especially the first part of the book, where the intense friendship between these two men is described, should be seen as a memory of Mulisch' to a friend. The book is also partially biographical. Max Delius resembles Mulisch. Both are partially Jewish, haunted by the war and obsessed with women. Mulisch also visited Cuba during the sixties, he too was part of the students revolt. The book is also critized for being a vehicle to Mulisch' ego and for flaunting his knowledge. The book is full of quotes from Hebrew, German, Egyptian, Greek and Latin. Most are left untranslated. The book is filled with facts which range from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, through complex astrophysics to Renaissance philosophy. One of the chapters is called 'Italienische Reise', a clear reference to Goethe, who Mulisch aspires to overcome.

the 2001 movie

In 2001 the book was made a movie by Jeroen Krabbe. Mulisch allowed the film on one condition: the English comedian Stephen Fry should play Onno Quist. Physically the resemblance between Fry and Piet Hein Donner is striking. The humour of both men also is rather similar. The rest was left upto Krabbe. Krabbe kept very close to the book, removing some of the longer pieces (especially on the friendship between Max and Onno and the youth of Quinten) and changing events for dramatic reasons. The spirit of the book, the intense friendship between Max and Onno, the mystical journey of Quinten, are described very well.

External links

IMBd - The Discovery of Heaven ( - About the movie.

de:Die Entdeckung des Himmels nl:De Ontdekking van de Hemel


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools