Traces expedition into Nobel candidate territory continues with Harry Mulisch’s 1999 novel, The Procedure. Mulisch has an extensive multi-genre oeuvre of at least 14 novels, as well as drama, essays and books of poetry. He is considered one of the giants of post war Dutch literature and recipient of the Prize for Dutch literature for lifetime achievement. His two best known novels are his 1982 The Assault and his 1992 The Discovery of Heaven, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies.
Genesis, Golems, Double Helix and Eboent oh my….
Having been forewarned that Mulisch is somewhat professed autodidact (self taught smart guy), I expected the unexpected in reading this, my first work by the author. Indeed. Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into ‘Deeds’, and each Deed further broken into ‘Documents’. The authorial presence was introduced in the first Document of the first Deed, titled Speaking, when our narrator instructs us precisely how the story is going to unfold, and a warning to prepare ourselves ‘through introspection and prayer’, as this tale is not for those who need immediate action and suspense, that he “can’t do it that way this time”….
The opening Document Man, explains the narrator’s interpretation of the biblical Creation story in which he informs us that a close reading of Genesis reveals ‘man’ was created three times. This is a portent of the three ‘creations’ that will take place in the novel. In the second document The Character, our narrator informs us that his opening section has caused the other ‘impure readers’ to flee and now it’s just ‘you and me’. He argues in circuitous fashion that literature is essentially theological in nature and that in the creation of a story:
The narrator of a story is at the same time not the narrator. The story itself is the actual narrator, it tells itself; from the first sentence onward, the narrative is a surprise to the narrator too…
He further explains that in the world of fiction, man is a ‘character’ having the additional meaning of a formation of characters in the alphabet, ‘figures on a typewriter’ and that the process of fictive creation is one of imitatio dei, like Jehovah. This God-Like sense of the creative process of writing will turn out to be a key referent and be echoed by the three different stories that are variations on the theme of Creation, Genesis, and Conception.
As in postmodern fiction enterprises, we are by now used to having ‘self conscious narratives’ the story teller winks to the reader that he and we both really know ‘what up’…Mulisch in The Procedure goes one better. He has offered to take the novitiate reader along for the whole mystery of conception, its creation, genesis and death.
Mulisch is obviously well in control of his material. From the embedded (well known) tale of 16thcentury Prague Rabbi Jehudah Loew who according to Jewish legend, successfully made a Golem, to an expose on DNA mapping and its brief history. The Deed ‘A’ is narrated in first person, Deed ‘B’ is constructed by three ‘communications’ from the protagonist: the internationally famous biochemist Victor Werker to the mother of his child. They form the narrative of the modern Pygmalion story. The prose for the first two thirds of the book is for the most part clinically detached and wry-ironical in tone, but the last two communications that form the central part of the novel are heart wrenching and powerful. Deed ‘C’, entitled The Conversation, is in third person ‘free indirect speech’ in which Victor tries to make sense of his past, present and future. The complex plot comes together full circle. That said, there is not the sense of total coherence of the disparate sections. Probably my impression is due to a momentum not sustained in the last section, it is more cerebral and in a completely different register from the emotionally moving previous ‘communique’ sections…
What I took Away:
This is one of those novels, short as it is (230 pages in my Penguin edition) that would reward future re-readings. It’s intelligent, and is a rare bird for being a novel of ideas that IS also suspenseful and readily engaging. I would re-read it for the ‘Third Communication’ alone. Its that powerful. If you pass Mulisch’s ‘initiation’ into The Procedure, he will be glad to take you along for the ride…