It is not unheard of for the literary community to lionize an editor who has turned unknown authors into household names. But rare is the day that an American reader thanks the stars for the heroic work of an organization like the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. Yet it is this group that can claim credit for underwriting the wave of new Dutch translations that are now reaching our shores. From the sprawling, historical brio of Arthur Japin's Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, to the noirish bite of Tim Krabbe's The Cave, Americans can now sample the novelists who are literary celebrities in their native country.
The eminence gris who paved the way for his younger statemen is Harry Mulisch, who began publishing in America in the mid-'80s. In his 700-page magnum opus, The Discovery of Heaven, Mulisch explored the tension between Dutch collusion and resistance during the Nazi era, a historical shadow that still looms today. His most recent novel, not yet available in the States, features a man eerily sympathetic to the writings of Adolf Hitler. So it's not a surprise that his latest novel to appear here, The Procedure (translated by Paul Vincent) also addresses pressing cultural and philosophical issues.
Weaving between the present day and the far past, The Procedure is a fascinating meditation on the enigma of creation. Composed of 12 so-called "documents," The Procedure evokes the quest of two men to trump God by creating life. In the opening sections Mulisch describes the horrific tale of Rabbi Jehudhah Low of 16th-century Prague, whose attempts to fabricate a protective golem out of clay accidentally unleashes a murderous monster. The novel then skips forward to the present day, adopting the voice of Victor Werker, a microbiologist conducting DNA research on Egyptian mummies. Werker has discovered "eobiont," an elemental independent life form derived from inorganic matter. Ironically, Werker has also fathered a stillborn daughter, whom he addresses in lengthy diatribes sent to his wife.
Using Werker's dazzling, fretful confession as his novel's axis, Mulisch explores a writer's complicity in the hubris of invention. In the hands of a lesser author this cautionary tale might seem turgid and self-important, but Mulisch moves his story forward effortlessly, complicating our allegiance to Werker. We want to improve on this earth, Mulisch suggests, but we don't want to reap the punishment when our plans and designs go awry. While it's an age-old truth, Mulisch lends this notion freshness, depth and urgency.
John Freeman is a writer who lives in New York.
By Harry Mulisch
Translated by Paul Vincent
Viking, $24.95, 230 pp