Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The ProcedureThe Procedure by Harry Mulisch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"You must not break anything that you yourself cannot make [...]"

I so much wanted to be swept off my feet by Harry Mulisch's The Procedure (1998). I rated his The Assault just a quarter of a star away from perfection, yet in this book - while admiring the author's intentions and the sheer audacity of his literary endeavor - I am unable to appreciate the end result. Yes, it is a masterpiece in terms of ambitious design and intent, but I find the execution much flawed. Of course, it is possible that I am just too obtuse or cynical to fully appreciate the author's skill.

The Procedure is not an easy book to read: it requires continuous attention and deep focus. The effort pays off well, but - in my uneducated view - not well enough. The elaborate structure of the novel is intimidating in its precision: three "deeds" - Speaking, The Spokesman, and The Conversation - are subdivided into the total of 10 "documents." The narration, often interrupted by philosophical asides and digressions, is non-linear, but roughly proceeds from the distant past (late 1500s) to the present (1990s).

We begin with analysis of texts from Scripture, particularly from The Book of Genesis, including the references to the 22 letters of Hebrew alphabet and the meaning of their various configurations. The author says that "words consist of letters, as molecules consist of atoms [...]", which sets forth one of the main motifs of the novel - parallels between the physical world and the world of texts. We continue with the well-told story of Rabbi Löw in the late 16th century Prague who - at the request of Emperor Rudolf II - works on creating a golem, a living man made from mud. We jump to the early 1950s and witness the conception and birth of Victor Werker whose life is told in the second "deed" in the form of letters to his daughter. This part is emotionally most resonant and contains a powerful passage on death before life and its influence upon the living. Then we move to the third "deed," full of action, some real and some imagined, that happens to Victor Werker in the 1990s.

Each "deed" has a dominating scene: in the first part the dinner scene in the chambers of Emperor Rudolf II, with distinguished guests such as Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler, is wonderfully vivid and phantasmagorical. I doubt that any reader will ever forget the extremely painful scene of Aurora's birth in the second "deed" - not a usual birth, which is all I can say without spoiling. Powerful! The highpoints in the third part are the imagined conversations between Victor and Clara. The triplet of Victor's milk brothers is also a memorable concept.

The novel is more or less about the process of creation. Similarities between making life and writing are illustrated, along with the discourse on God as a writer and writer as god. Victor, an eminent biologist, creates life from inorganic building blocks. We read a lot about DNA, and the amino acid language of genetics. The Procedure is an extremely serious book about the preciousness of life and the randomness of death, about the eternal embrace of creation and destruction.

Three and three quarter stars.

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