Harry Mulisch: The Assault – De Aanslag (1982)

The execution of a collaborator and Nazi retaliation on the family of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk have lasting repercussions in Anton’s life as he learns, through chance encounters, the truth of one harrowing night. 

Harry Mulisch is an author I have wanted to read for a long time. I know he is said to be one of the most important Dutch writers.  The Assault – De Aanslag is one of his most acclaimed novels and since it isn’t as long as The Discovery of Heaven, which I’d like to read sooner or later as well, I thought it’s a good starting point.

The book is told in a prologue and 5 sequences, each set in another year, 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, 1981.

During the course of one single night, in the famine winter 45, just before the end of the war, the life of Anton Steenwijk, a twelve year-old boy, is changed forever.

The prologue describes the location. We get to know that the Steenwijk’s live in Haarlem, in a detached house, part of a housing project with three other houses. They are small but stately houses. At the beginning of sequence one, the family sits together in the darkened dining room, the only room they still inhabit in the icy cold apartment. Anton is reading, his older brother Peter is doing his home work, the mother spools wool and the father is trying to instruct them. A peaceful moment and despite the hunger Anton is enjoying it.

When they hear shots outside in the street, the peaceful moment is interrupted brutally. Looking out of the window they see that someone has been shot down in front of a neighbour’s house and immediately after this the neighbours come out and drag the man to the front of  Steenwijk’s house. Peter is the only one to react. He runs out and discovers that the man is a well-known police inspector and Nazi collaborator. He tries to drag the man away but before he gets very far, a group of Nazis approaches.

We learn later, that in those days, whenever a Nazi or a collaborateur was shot dead, the Nazis would severely punish those living in the houses close by.

This is exactly what happens. At the end of the night Anton’s parents and brother are shot and the house is destroyed. Anton is brought to his aunt and uncle who live in Amsterdam.

How do you go on living after something like this? How do you cope?

Each of the subsequent scenes shows us Anton at another point in his life. There is no conscious coping at first. It is as if he was numb and had forgotten everything right after it happened. His feeling for time is distorted. Whenever he thinks of that night he doesn’t feel much and thinks it’s much longer ago than it really is. Still the event seems to be guiding him in all of his choices and it is impossible to leave it behind for good. It is as if a secret force was at work and pushing him towards people who will help him uncover what happened really.

Survivor’s guilt may be an important theme but morality and fate or destiny are even much more important. While it was a pure coincidence that the dead man was shot in front of Korteweg’s house, Korteweg’s chose to drag him and leave him in front of Steenwijk’s house. Why? And if those who committed the assault had known that almost a whole family would be erased, would they still have done what they did? All these questions that Anton will start to ask many years later will be answered in the novel.

The book explores the question whether it is morally acceptable to commit a crime which will have severe consequences for others, in order to prevent bigger crimes and it explores also how people live with a trauma and repression. It shows in a very subtle way that although you may not be conscious of it, the trauma still lingers and wants to be acknowledged and express itself. It will find ways to make you pay attention. Pretty much like the elements in a dream which will return as long as you have not resolved some interior conflicts. The trauma can even make you choose a profession and it expresses itself in illness and accidents.

The way Mulisch shows the complexity and symbolism in which our subconscious tries to get our attention is amazing. What is equally wonderful is how evocative and expressive his descriptions are. When we open that book, we sit there with the family in the darkened room. We see the flickering lamp, feel the rough wool of an old pullover on our skin, the hunger churning in our bellies.

I didn’t like all of the parts equally well but one thing is for sure, part I 1945, is an amazing piece of literature and as a whole it is well worth reading.

I have read Harry Mulisch for Iris Dutch Literature Month. If you’d like to discover more Dutch books, make sure to visit her blog.

Has anyone read this or another of Mulisch’s book?