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?

45 thoughts on “Harry Mulisch: The Assault – De Aanslag (1982)

    • Yes it is. I knew he was praised for his psychological insight but that can mean all sorts of things. It’s quite subtle what he does but still powerful.

  1. Years ago I saw the Dutch film based on this book. I remember finding the movie very gripping and interesting.I remember back in the 1980s, Here in America I think this was one of the more popular foreign films among people who watched foreign films.

    I never realized that it was based on such a respected novel. It sounds like a very good book.

    • Now that’s interesting. I didn’t know it was based on a movie. I would love to see it, thanks for telling me. The book is so well written, really worth reading.

  2. Did someone say film?
    I haven’t read any Muslich, but I have a couple of titles on my shelf.I’m interested in this primarily for its larger moral questions–as you mention–the morality of actions, in this case against the Nazis, when there will be civilian reprisals.

    • I think it works on many levels, it’s well written and asks many interesting questions.
      I just checked, the movie isn’t avaliablebhere but maybe you are luckier via Netflix.

  3. This does sound harrowing. I’d be very interested in the way the trauma is dealt with in subsequent eras of Harry’s life, if I could get myself through the opening. On a different note, have you read any books you would recommend on overcoming trauma? I know that both of us have an interest in these sorts of psychological issues.

    • It would have been extremely harrowing if he hadn’t been so numbed. I was startled at first until I realized that this was the only way to cope with such an awful event. Dissociation and repression. I think the dissociation is shown even better.
      Other than the ones by Alice Miller I have read a few in German which have not been translated, I’m afraid. One was very good but it’s a difficult book (from a language persepctive, your German would have to be very good). I can still look it up for you, it’s somewhere under a pile.

      • Thank you to you and to Catharina for those recommendations. I have read the Judith Herman but it was years ago and in an academic context. May well be worth while returning to it, and Peter Levine is new to me – thank you!

  4. I was nodding along with what you’d written Caroline, but you nailed it with this: “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”. If I had to sum up how I felt about the book I couldn’t improve on that.

    The funeral really stuck in my mind as well.

    Interesting that there’s a film. I’d like to try another Mulisch.

    • I’m glad to hear you felt the same. I was really wondering if it was only me to see it that way. While everything that comes later is interesting, it’s nowhere near as amazing as the beginning. He was focussing on other things I felt. I would love to see that movie.
      I’m not sure which one to read next.
      I’ve got a small book with short stories. Maybe I can fit it in before the end of the month. The way he wrote the prologue and the first part make me wonder whether he isn’t better in the shorter form.

    • Ann, I think you would like this very much. There are so mayn things I discover of which I knew nithing like the Nazi retributions on people who had done nothing just because they were somewhere close by.

    • Thank, pburt. I didn’t focus so much on the contemporaray issues but you are right, they are important. I will have to see whether you have reviewed it as well.

  5. This sounds interesting 🙂

    I’m going to post this weekend on a Nooteboom book – I wish I’d had more time for Dutch Lit month, but I’ve been busy with other things (lots of review copies at the moment – a novelty for me!). I think Mulisch is a writer I’d like to try, and this one seems to be a good starting point.

    • I’m quite confident this would be a book for you, maybe the one or the other coincidence would bother you too but ovearll it’s very good and the beginning is stunning.
      I have two readalongs next week or I would have read more.

  6. I read this many years ago–so long that reading your review makes me realize how much has faded from memory. I could easily reread and I suspect get more out of it now than I did when I was younger. It sounds really brutal but also powerful in a good way. I’ll have to dig around for my copy. I wish I would have been able to read more books for Dutch Lit Month, too, but I am already behind in other books I wanted to finish as it is.

    • I’m sure this improbes on a second reading. It’s quiet a complex book. I realized that I had so many Dutch books and I’m quite disappointed I didn’t manage more. There are a lot of interesting events on but I need to cut back, Challenges do not put me under the same pressure.

  7. Pingback: Dutch Lit Month: Introducing Week 3 | Iris on Books

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I have heard a lot about Harry Mulisch but haven’t read any of his books. Now after reading your review, I know why he is highly acclaimed. I love the premise of the book – it is fascinating and complex and thought-provoking. I am adding this to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy. You are welcome. 🙂 It’s really worth reading and I hope you will like it as well. The beginning is simply amazing. But it’s overall great. The more I think about it, the more themes I discover.

  9. I wish I had known about the Dutch Literature Readalong before I went to The Netherlands. I often enjoy reading literature set in the destination I’m traveling written by local authors. I’d been having a difficult time finding English translations.
    I knew I should have asked you before I set out!

    • Me too, I always like to read a few books to put me in the mood.
      I know most Dutch literature from German translations and only recently discovered how little has been translated. It’s a pity as everything I’ve read so far was very good.
      Let me know before you go on your next trip. I might have any idea or two. 🙂

  10. Sounds like a thought provoking book, surviver’s guilt is hard to cure.
    That early part of his life is so tragic…seeing all his family murdered just because an officer’s dead body was in front of his house. Poor people.

  11. I like your review and how you uproot all the issues of the text.

    But WWII. Again. *sigh* I’d rather start with another Mulisch.

    I didn’t have time to participate to Dutch Lit Month, too bad, I would have wanted to read another Noteboom. Next year maybe.

    • It went too quickly for me as well.
      “WWII again” sums up my own thoughts, believe it or not. I’m getting a bit weary too. A lot of Dutch literature in translation , just like German literature in translation has a WWII theme.

    • Emma, your “But WWII. Again. *sigh*” is exactly one of the reasons why I avoided Dutch lit for many years. It is the most popular thing to write about in our country, it seems. Or at least it was for a long time. I have a feeling this might have changed in recent years..

      • I understand “depressing and self-centred characters” is why I avoided contemporary French literature. It’s changing too and I’m discovering new writers. Feels good.

      • Dutc literature was never WWII for me but I read what was avalable in German. It seems however that Dutch lit in translation is heavy on WWII…And, as you just wrote, more recent books are less WWII centered.

  12. Caroline, sorry for my late comment!

    Your post makes me think that this really should be the Mulisch to start with. And that it might be his best, too. Though I know his “The Discovery of Heaven” is usually the most praised, I wonder if Mulisch is better in smaller doses.

    I think I may bail on my promise not to bother with Mulisch anymore and give this one a try, um, next year? I’ll prepare to be disappointed in a few places, but I look forward to finding out the beauty in the first part. You made it sound much more appealing by referring to the question of coping that the novel reflects on.

    I hope you don’t feel too bad about not reading more for Dutch lit month. I am ever so happy that you found the time to read one book. I know how stressful participating in these kinds of events can be, and I often don’t manage to do more than one book (or completely neglect reading at all). Again, thank you for the very thoughtful post!

    • You’re wwlcome, iris and don’t worry, hosting an event like this is no small thing. It takes a lot of time.
      I feel a bit bad, I was looking forward to read more…
      I think Mulisch must be a master of the small form, without even trying The Discovery of Heaven I’m sure of it. The way this “novel” is sequenced points into that direction. There are good parts in the later sequences but they aren’t even as descriptive. I think you would like the beginning, so maybe next year.
      The way he shows how the subconscious works is something you would find interesting too, I’m sure. I didn’t pay so much attention to his female characters as you did and they were pale in comparison to the men.

  13. Your post on The Assault appeared just as I was leaving town, so I’m only now back to comment on it. This was my selection too for Dutch Lit Month (but miserably I had no time to compose anything about it before departing), so I was pleased to see that someone else had read it. I too thought it was a terrific novel, deceptively simple in its presentation of complex moral problems. I did feel that it carried some banners that marked it unmistakably as a novel of the 1980’s – not simply historical elements like an anti-nuke march but also a very ’80’s fixation on adults unraveling their childhood traumas (helpfully contextualized here as a sort of unraveling of a whole country’s trauma). It was my first encounter with Mulisch, but I was sure even a page into it that it wouldn’t be my last.

    • Too bad you didn’t review it, i would have liked to read your thoughts.
      Now that you mention it, it really is rooted in the 80s. I didn’t mind this consciously because it was done in a subtle way but it could explain why I preferred part I which is free of the 80s feel. It’s a
      book which would improve on a second reading, I’m sure.
      I would like to read some more Mulisch as well.

  14. I loved the book and found it more easy to read than his “The Discovery of Heaven”. Mulisch, the son of an Austrian Nazi and a Dutch Jewish mother is raising very interesting moral questions. Also what I liked about the book that the truth is discovered slowly, almost like in a crime novel.

    Recently I came across Maarten ‘t Hart’s novel “Het Woeden der Gehele Wereld”, also an excellent work with a plot that reminded me slightly of Mulisch.

    • I think I have tha Maarten’t Hart book somewhere. I’ve been told that Willem Frederik Hermans was similar. I’ve read hart but not Hermans.
      I don’t do well with chunky books that’s why i satyed away from the Discovery of Heaven so far.
      In any case – Dutch literature is not to be missed. There are some real gems there.

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