The riddle of creation, and the innumerable natural and man-made shocks the overweening intellect is (so to speak) heir to, are the dominant concerns in this elusive and fascinating metaphysical fiction.
It begins teasingly, with a research scientist’s speculations about the accounts of the creation given in Genesis and other ancient texts, and how these relate to the “story” “told” by the “language” of DNA, as theoretically deciphered by James Watson’s theory of the double helix. Then, in another of the 12 “documents” that make up Mulisch’s text, we learn the story of Rabbi Jehudhah Löw of 16th-century Prague, whose efforts to fashion a golem out of clay (at the behest of his Emperor), and thus ensure the protection of the Jews from persecution, instead produces a homicidal Frankensteinian monster. Thereafter, the novel settles into the extended “confession” of Victor Werker, a microbiologist who’s part of an international team doing DNA research on Egyptian mummies, the hubristic inventor of what he terms the “eobiont” (“the simplest independent life form possible,” which Werker has assembled, in godlike fashion, from inorganic materials), and the bereaved father of a stillborn daughter (mocking proof of his inability to create life after all) to whom he addresses long, analytical letters sent to his estranged wife. All this sounds oppressively dense, but Dutch author Mulisch (The Discovery of Heaven, 1996) uses the complex, self-challenging (and strangely endearing) figure of Werker as the fulcrum of a dazzlingly brilliant fictional structure that is itself a series of “creations”: the original one recorded in the Bible, the construction of an artificial human, the making (that is, the conception, birth, and early years) of Werker himself, and finally his own experiences as a maker—of the aforementioned eobiont, and of the book in which his theories and their consequences are encapsulated and (to a surprisingly successful degree) explained.
Definitely not hammock reading. This is exhilarating, mind-bending stuff by an author who probes ever deeper into the mysteries that matter most—and keeps getting better.