book: The Procedure (1998; trans Paul Vincent 2001) by Harry Mulisch

The front-flap blurb of my copy of this novel tells me that its author has “created an . . . immaculately constructed story.” I can only conclude that the blurbist was deploying the Goebbels principle of “if you gotta tell a lie, tell a big one,” because the reality is that this novel’s construction is ramshackle to the fringes of credibility. It reads as if Mulisch had four (or more) different fragments that at least tangentially involved a similar theme and, after giving them a minor tweak, threw them together and called them a novel.

The first of these fragments, fortunately filling just the initial fifteen pages or so, offers as self-indulgent, self-referential a piece of shallow intellectualism as I’ve come across. Indeed, the author seems aware of how immensely offputting his opening is, almost gloating on page 10 that “. . . our intention succeeded. Your impure fellow readers have fled head over heels from all those ghostly letters.”

As well they might. If you skip the opening pages until a few lines after the immortal phrase “I hang on my own lips, all ears” at the top of page 16 you’ll miss nothing and your wall may have a few less book-shaped dents.

The next fragment is quite fun. It concerns the successful attempt of a late-sixteenth-century Prague rabbi to create a golem from riverbank clay at the behest of Rudolf II. Although there’s one quite risible moment when the rabbi is introduced to a group at Rudolf’s dining table that just happens to include Tycho Brahe, Giordano Bruno, John Dee and Edward Kelley, Cornelis Drebbel, Arcimboldo, Johannes Kepler and others — a sort of all-star lineup of roughly contemporaneous celebs — the rest of the tale makes good reading. (All of those pioneering figures were sponsored or encouraged by Rudolf, of course. But your odds of finding the whole bunch of them having a slap-up informal nosh with the emperor at any one time would be beyond remote.)

Anyway, Rabbi Löw’s golem experiment has disastrous consequences, and that’s the last we see of him. As I was reading his tale I felt I’d come across it somewhere before. I’m perfectly familiar with the legend of Rabbi Löw’s endeavor, but there’s a twist to it here, and it was the twist that I seemed to have encountered elsewhere. Perhaps Mulisch has separately published a version of this story.

Anyway, we now skip forward a few centuries to the present(ish) day, where we find scientist Victor Werker. He has managed to create out of clay a combination of molecules that is capable of, to all intents and purposes, growing and reproducing — in other words, by most definitions his creation is alive: an eobiont. He tells us about some of the social and personal consequences of the experiment, but not much about the experiment itself. Victor is aware of Rabbi Löw’s tale and the parallels that exist between it and his own work, but wisely doesn’t read too much into them. (I say “wisely” because, to use an example hinted at above, Giordano’s wild ideas about the plurality of inhabited worlds, based in religious mysticism, really do not have much in common with modern SETI speculations.)

Victor tells us this section of the novel in first person in the form of three long letters ostensibly addressed to his stillborn daughter but in reality intended for the eyes of her mother, who separated from Victor after the stillbirth. We’re of course supposed to find it immensely significant/ironic that the man who could create an artificial living organism from clay couldn’t create one the natural way from human cells.

The book’s final section is a vaguely thrillerish effort, again with not a great deal of connection to what’s gone before.

If you ignore that opening fusillade of Pseud’s Korner dreariness and one other vaguely similar (but mercifully shorter) passage later on, the book is never actually outright boring, but I found myself constantly irritated by the sense that the author isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. It’s possible my attitude toward the text had simply been soured by those first fifteen pages, yet I noticed a couple of trivial slipups (unfortunately I didn’t note them and now forget the particulars) in Mulisch’s/Victor’s interpretation of science history, which seemed to confirm my suspicion. And there was also an air of self-satisfaction about the whole proceedings that grated upon the sensibilities of at least this reader.

I’m sure there are others who’ll find a lot more in The Procedure than I did, but for me the novel represents a failure. I had a lot of the same reservations about it as I did about the same author’s The Discovery of Heaven , which I read last year, but at least the earlier novel had a little more structure to it, however much it rambled (and rambled, and rambled). The Procedure seems to me to contain quite a lot of interesting stuff, but to be too much of a porridge and to have too many flaws to be satisfying.

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