Do you know this feeling? You open a new book, and read the first few lines, and know that you are in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing.
This is a book that induces exactly that feeling. It’s not a surprise: two of Harry Mulisch’s previous books, The Assault and The Discovery of Heaven, have been widely acclaimed, both in their original Dutch and English translation. Like both of those books, The Procedure combines a profoundly emotional story with some dry, cunning intellectual enquiry. The narrative voice is humane, learned, and completely confident. Mulisch must know that he is among the few people who actually deserves to have “one of Europe’s greatest living writers” on the flap of his latest novel.
The Procedure opens with a witty investigation of the art and act of writing. A writer wonders how to start his new book. Then, we are taken to Sixteenth Century Prague, where Rabbi Jehudah Low is offered a deal by the Emperor: if he can create a golem, he will secure the long-term safety of the Jewish community. A golem, as you probably know, is a lump of clay infused with life. Low manages to accomplish this miracle, but his success is followed immediately by catastrophe. Next, we return to the present, where we are introduced to Victor Werker, a famous scientist, a Nobel contender, a Dutchman who lives the jetset life of an international intellectual superstar, and we spend the majority of the book with him. We soon discover that his experiments with DNA have resulted in one fabulous success: he created a living creature from inorganic matter.
Mulisch takes these three narrative strands, and plays them against one another, sparking a series of connections around their common theme: the creation of life. Some of these connections are obvious, even cliche-ed; others are clever puns, essentially vacuous but still fun; and some are unexpected, startling and brilliant.
Destruction and creation; art and science and religion; the different alphabets of Dutch, Hebrew and DNA; a glance which creates love and an act which destroys love; birth and death; intuition and investigation; Count Frankenstein and Alan Turing…. Mulisch doesn’t only connect, he keeps making connections, again and again, more and more, until the reader is dazzled, delighted, bewildered, and unable to put down the book.
As I turned the pages, hurrying towards the end, gripped by the pace and skill of every sentence, I couldn’t help wondering how Mulisch would tie all these strands together. Would he make a rope? Or a web? A ladder? Or some other structure that I hadn’t even been able to visualize?
I won’t reveal the ending, but I can say this: everything falls apart. The story is resolved with a neat and fairly meaningless twist. I was left feeling not just disappointed but irritated. After creating such a masterful narrative and pulling together so many different strands of history, philosophy, science and art, isn’t it lazy for a writer to end a book by dropping all the strands and walking away with a hopeless shrug of his shoulders?
Mulisch is a great writer, and perhaps his intentions are just too profound for me to penetrate. Perhaps I will wake up in the middle of the night, weeks from now, and suddenly understand it all. I hope so.
Reviewed by Josh Lacey