Online Edition: Fall 2001

The Procedure

Harry Mulisch
translated by Paul Vincent

Viking ($24.95)

by Jason Picone

Many contemporary novelists attempt to inform their fiction with science and philosophy, but few succeed as completely as the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch. Without ever being heavy-handed or smart alecky, his new novel manages to integrate chemistry, Jewish mysticism, and the Pygmalion myth in a beguiling and enrapturing tale of modern man.

Mulisch's fourth novel to appear in English, The Procedure begins with a close reading of the book of Genesis, an investigation that leads the narrator to observe that God formed "man of the dust and of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." This account of the creation of man fuels the idea of the golem, a Jewish myth that Mulisch updates through his retelling of a late, 16th-century event.

Charged by the Holy Roman Emperor to animate a creature composed of earth, Rabbi Jehudah Low reluctantly applies himself to the Jewish Book of Creation, which details the procedure for creating a golem. The Rabbi's initial resistance slowly gives way to excitement, as he wonders if his experiment might truly succeed. Ultimately, the unexpected outcome of Low's labor serves not only as a warning to those who would attempt to play God, but also as a testament to life's essentially unpredictable nature.

The novel's protagonist, Victor Werker, is a present-day Dutch chemist who has managed to create a simple organism (called the eobiont) from inorganic origins, a process that mimics both God's birthing of man and Low's animation of the golem. While Werker is an unqualified professional success, it's ironic that he can create life in the laboratory, but not in the conventional manner with Clara, the woman he loves; their daughter emerged from the womb stillborn, a traumatic event that separated the lovers. In addition to these personal disappointments, Werker must also weather threats from religious sources, which allege that his experiments are trying to displace God.

Though The Procedure is a cautionary tale about the dangers of overwhelming pride, under close consideration (the novel's epigraph is "So cleverly did his art conceal its art"), another possible reading emerges. As well as resembling Low, Werker also bears an uncomfortable similarity to a golem, a metaphor suggested by Mulisch's earlier observation that if Adam was a golem, all of humanity might be as well.

A man who knows the dead better than the living, Werker addresses his letters to his daughter instead of Clara, because he is more comfortable communicating through a stillborn medium than directly to a loved one. Even the partner with whom he made the eobiont has deserted him, a mutual accusation of treachery filling the void between them. Werker is occasionally moved to action by a buzzing in his chest, but it's not his heart that animates him, it's the vibration of a cell phone that he keeps in the front pocket of his shirt. The chemist's overly logical investigation of the novel's final puzzle limits his ability to find a solution; he has information that a crime will occur, but his innate inflexibility compromises his ability to prevent it.

After Mulisch's previous novel, the lap-breaking and mind-boggling The Discovery of Heaven, fans of the Dutch writer might be disappointed that The Procedure is only 230 pages, but rest assured that all the genius, wit, and humanity of his opus is amply on display in the slender new work. The Procedure reminds us that no matter how man chooses to order his existence, there is no simple set of instructions to follow; in order to feel truly alive, man must carve his life from life.

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Fall 2001 Table of Contents