Harry Mulisch, The Assault (De Aanslag, 1982)

I discovered Harry Mulisch through The Mookse and Gripes. I was immediately captivated when Trevor mentioned that Mulisch was a worthy candidate for the Literature Nobel Prize (he didn’t get it because he died last year).

I felt bad for being so ignorant of Netherland writers, as after all, I was born only 100 miles from Haarlem, where the book takes place and Mulish himself grew up. The Dutch writers I’ve read are Hella Haasse and Anna Endquist, but I’d never heard of Mulisch even though he has sold bestsellers in his country. How bad is that?

The main character of the Assault is Anton Steenwijk, 12 years old in 1945, living with his older brother and parents. The end of the war is near, but the Germans are still very much in control and the tragedy strikes as a bigwig Dutch collaborationist is killed by the Resistance just in front of Anton’s home one night. To be precise, he is shot in front of the neighbors’, but the neighbors run out to move the body in front of the Steenwijks’ (yeah, talk about neighborly relations) and the Steenwijks themselves have no time to do the same before police arrives. As a retaliation, Anton’s home is burnt to the ground by the Germans and his parents and brother rounded up (he learns later that they all were killed). Young Anton is taken by the Germans, who clearly don’t know how to deal with him, and passing from hand to hand, from prison to headquarters (where he’s not badly treated), he is released to his uncle’s care.

The point of the novel is not the assault itself, but its aftermath during Anton’s whole life. The novel is structured in snapshots at key moments of his life, between the war and the yearly 1980s. We get to witness Anton as he grows older, studies, works, marries, divorces, remarries and has children, as well as a glimpse of the Netherlands and the world in 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981. We readers are privileged to see how much of his choices or thoughts are influenced by the events, or by his attempt to numb and suppress the emotions linked to its memory.

Anton never quite get to terms with what happened that night, and the question of guilt and blame are subtly addressed without giving any black-and-white answer. Why did the neighbors act this way? Didn’t the Resistance know that the Germans would retaliate and probably kill innocents for that murder? What is morally right to kill that collaborationist, especially with probability of retaliation? What was the need to do it, knowing that the end of the war was near? Who is the victim of the assault, Anton or the traitor’s son? Who is the guilty part, the Germans, the traitor, the neighbors or the Resistance?

At the end of the book, these questions resonate even more in the reader as we gradually uncover new aspects of the truth: nobody in this story comes out really clean. It seems that Mulish’ ambition was to question the Dutch society’s collective behavior during the war, as stated in this essay:

With The Assault, Mulisch did not simply question the nature of civilians in war. He also confronted the very real question of Dutch complicity in the Holocaust. The idea that the Dutch – widely considered to be victims of the Germans – could also have been facilitators of Nazi crimes, was anathema for many in the immediate post-war years. It was arguably Mulisch who forced his countrymen to face the consequences of their inaction, to realize that their victimization tells only a portion of the story of what happened during the war.

I’m so grateful to Trevor for pointing out to this author and this unique novel.

One thought on “Harry Mulisch, The Assault (De Aanslag, 1982)

  1. Pingback: 2011 Stats and Best « Smithereens

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