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Summer Books

Verbose angels upend life on earth as God regroups

By Harry Mulisch
Viking, 730 pages, $34.95 hardback


This is a tale told by an angel, which reveals at least one new thing about angels: They are long-winded, in this case 730 pages long-winded. It may not be altogether the angel's fault. The story is cosmic and convoluted, and no narrator knowing what an angel knows can risk skipping small details that, for all the rest of us know, may make the world go round.

Indeed, making the world go round would be a trivial pursuit compared with this angel's undertaking. He (I'm sorry -- while no names or genders are mentioned, this angel seems to me to talk like a he) must instead throw a wrench in the earthly works, upend a natural process here, jiggle a circumstance there, to engineer "our man on earth" for a special assignment: nothing less than locating the two tablets on which God wrote his Ten Commandments.

One might be lulled into thinking this is Hollywood fare, Charlton Heston in full beard and a few bolts of lightning in God's hip pocket. These angels, not to mention God, to whom they refer as "the Chief," have a more ominous purpose.

The Ten Commandments were God's contract with us humans. We have not, ever since, kept our part of that bargain; with odd exceptions, of course. Now therefore the Chief wants his tablets back with a view to abrogating the whole deal. God has had more than enough of us and is determined to leave us to our own devices -- and to Lucifer, who lurks between the lines in these pages.

But since the Chief did not create a vacuum in the first place, any new divine dispensation has to be worked out amid the enormous complexity that has befallen Earth. This includes taking account of human DNA, amino acids, genomes, the whole scientific caboodle. It also includes the psychological and historical caboodles. This entails some ruthless adjustments to reality, including World War I, some bad marriages and some cruel wrinkles in Hitler's Holocaust.

All this just to prepare suitable ancestry for "our man on earth."

The human scenario begins to take definite shape and color in 1967, in Holland, home territory to author Mulisch, who is a prolific novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and philosopher. It will help to like Holland, which for most of this story becomes the center of the universe.

Despite all the manipulation of circumstances, Onno Quist and Max Delius finally meet by accident -- those shameless angels use everything on Earth to achieve their ends. Onno is a disheveled, disorganized, self-important but very smart linguist. Max is more street-wise, a philanderer, also self-important and a very smart astronomer. Each soon recognizes in the other a bosom buddy. They become inseparable. They tell their histories, including big chunks of the history of Europe. Onno's mother was gassed in a concentration camp, and his father, former prime minister of the Netherlands, shot by a firing squad. They learn they were conceived the same day and other uncanny coincidences, enough to convince any skeptic that there were angels on the job.

Above all, they expound on their scientific projects. They one-up each other endlessly. This is Umberto Eco territory.

"Have you ever noticed," one asks, "that the area of Protestantism coincides with the area covered by polar ice in the Ice Age?" The thought does not become a line of argument or go anywhere. The world is full of thoughts and theories, they seem to be saying, but going nowhere. Spinoza, Nietzsche, Margaret Thatcher and a host of others are dragged in.

But, explains the angel, "their unending stream of theories, jokes, observations and anecdotes was not their real conversation: That took place beneath these, without words, and it was about themselves."

So, over a rum and Coke, Onno tells Max about the Gilgamesh epic, the oldest story we have, a story of friendship. This in turn brings up the story of the Americans Leopold and Loeb, who went on a killing spree, a friendship gone sour.

Truth to tell, while sometimes stimulating, the intellectual jousting of Onno and Max is frequently boring. But the narrative takes a turn for the brighter when Max meets Ada Brons, a cello player who, we soon suspect, will be part of the Big Picture. The Big Picture, however, doesn't happen in the abstract but in Holland, where the participants spend quality time in restaurants like the Gilded Turk, with drinks like the "Cuba libre," over which Onno says things like "God is logic! Logic is God! Yes, I believe it -- because it is absurd."

Max dumps Ada, a decent musician but in need of a life. So, when Max goes off to Auschwitz to emote about the Holocaust, Ada moves in with Onno. These are all liberals, Cuba libre-drinking idealists, so when Ada gets invited to play music in Cuba, Max and Onno also go along, leading to great gobs of talk and theory deep into the Cuban night.

But it wasn't all theory. Max and Ada go swimming in the Cuban night -- remember, she is now Onno's woman -- and commit a sexual no-no under "a blood-red, monstrous crescent moon."

Throughout the book, interspersed with the Dutch shenanigans on Earth, there are glimpses of the angelic side of the story. The angels call themselves Sparks, fragments of divine light. The boss angel instructs the junior angel on his "mission." To execute it, he will have to become a human. Worse still, he will have forgotten where he came from, that he has the bright stuff, and think he's just a regular human with a great idea.

The angels become as garrulous as the Dutch, flaunting their superior knowledge of the human race, explaining Lucifer's ructions down below on Earth, including the Dr. Faustus deal, Simon Magus, a string of problems and embarrassments. Including Francis Bacon, the most recent villain chosen by Satan for a scientific and technological utopia that, any Spark will tell you, has little chance against human stupidity and perversity.

Ada, meanwhile, on the night of her dalliance with Max, takes the wise precaution, on her return to the Cuban hotel, of crawling under the blankets with Onno, who, happily, is inebriated and, therefore, not sure ever after what happened that fateful night. What happened was that Ada got pregnant.

While Onno is, in his fuzzy way, proud as a peacock with regard to the pregnancy, Max and Ada share misgivings.

"After all, it wasn't an immaculate conception," Max says.

"I'm assuming it wasn't -- although I was using the pill."

"It was more of a doubly maculate conception. But who's the father? You don't know."

"And I don't want to know. You and Onno are the father. You two are such a unity after all."

Just another day on Earth, as any Spark might say.

Onno and Ada get married.

There is a car crash in which the pregnant Ada is badly injured and lapses into a coma. Perhaps, Max ponders, "it was really true that you could only believe in God if you believed in the devil as well. If you believed only in God, you got into difficulties." So old renegade Max decides he must sacrifice himself. He will bring up Ada's child. He and Ada's mother Sophia -- but that's a whole other sexy story.

Flaky Onno sees this menage as a fine solution. The child is born, while Ada remains in a coma. It is a boy; they name him Quentin.

The heaven's eye view is naturally different.

"Congratulations," the senior Spark greets the junior Spark.

"There he was, our envoy -- after years of hard work." This Quentin is what the whole operation was about -- "our man on Earth." But the junior angel is only moderately elated. So much havoc had to be wrought to bring all this about. It used to be easier, he says, "when we simply used to address people directly as the need arose."

Says the other: "But we stopped doing that after the creatures got the idea that it was not our voice they were hearing but their own inner voice. Of course we couldn't stand for that kind of pickpocketing. It's undeniable that technology is increasingly taking the place of theology on Earth."

Gradually God's unenviable predicament is revealed. It would be great, one Spark muses, if taking back the "testimony," the Ten Commandments contract, should shock people back to awareness. No chance, says the other. For one thing, they won't even know about it. That's not where their heads are: "Did you really think that brood would give up anything at all? ... What they have, they want to keep. That wretch Lucifer knows exactly what he's doing. With each new invention, people have stolen a piece of our omnipotence."

Humans can even destroy the Earth, the pessimistic Spark goes on -- something only the divinity could do in the old days. Indeed, he says, they're already destroying the planet without meaning to. The angel confides that, in his view, Lucifer understands people much better than the Chief. "The Chief is an idealist, a darling, who wants the best for people without knowing what he has taken on."

Young Quentin thrives. Ada lies in a nursing home. Onno becomes a big politician. People land on the moon. Quentin continues to thrive. When it's time for him to talk, his first word is "obelisk." The kid has panache. Onno's old girlfriend, Helga, dies. Onno gives up a big political career to go away and, literally, get lost. He writes to Max: "All I know is that I have to make myself invisible, a bit like a dying elephant." He pledges unending friendship, recalling the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. He urges Max to go on with his astronomy -- "unveil the Big Bang."

And Max does push on in search of the secrets of the universe. Insights follow observations by leaps and bounds.

He is on the very brink of the big celestial breakthrough when a meteorite, about the size of a fist, estimated at 4 billion years old, comes down from the skies and kills him, a direct hit, one of the great long shots. One angel later upbraids the other for being so drastic.

"What do you expect?" says the other. "He was on the point of discovering us!"

"He was on the threshold, I won't deny it. He was peering through the keyhole, as it were -- but he was drunk. The next morning he would have dismissed the whole thing as colossal nonsense."

The biggest thing divine beings have going for them, the first angel says, is belief. "The moment our existence becomes a matter of knowledge, they'll abandon us completely."

Onno, at the time of his mysterious departure, had also written to his (presumed) son Quentin that he was going underground. "To escape life itself," he wrote. A few years pass, and Quentin becomes what one would expect of that special youth for whom the recent history of the world has been adjusted. Not surprisingly he gets antsy and heads out on the traditional male journey, which soon is full of adventures, not to mention full of philosophical, theological and scientific speculations.

He goes to Italy: Milan, Venice, the usual places. In what could be called a nearby town, Onno is visited by a raven, who talks in Latin. This is because Onno still has a role to play in Quentin's Big Plan. They meet at the Pantheon in Rome. They become a pair of pilgrims with a purpose. They visit all the places -- from Rome's Via Dolorosa to Jerusalem's Wailing Wall -- that one might expect of such a pair, reviewing the original divine contract as they go, to see if there is anything on Earth left to be redeemed.

There's a good 400-page book in these 730 pages. The two angels -- all right, Sparks -- are more winsome characters than the Dutch, more human. Not that we should blame the Dutch, who are all of us. And, right now, if the Sparks have it right, we are in a hell of a lot of trouble that even God -- but no, human readers must read the rest for themselves.

Michael Farrell is NCR's executive editor.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997