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?

Dutch Literature Month and Beryl Bainbridge Week in June

If it hadn’t been for Iris’ Dutch Literature Month last year, maybe Lizzy and I wouldn’t even have thought of organizing a German Literature Month. Who knows, in any case I enjoyed Dutch Literature Month last year and I’m glad Iris is hosting it again in June. Needless to say that I am joining. Details can be found here.

I have a few plans for this year.

One book I would like to read is Hedwig’s Journey by Frederik van Eeden. I’ve got a copy from Holland Park Press and it sounded very good. The first translation has been published in 1902. This edition is a revised new translation.

Sample passages and a long description of the book can be found on the editor’s page. Here’s what makes me want to read it.

Outwardly, Hedwig is a typical girl growing up in a well-to-do family in a sleepy provincial town. Inwardly, she feels things very deeply and has a strong sense of self, and can all of a sudden feel very depressed.
‘It was the afternoon, between four and five o’clock, that she recalled with most dislike; …, and the worst of all the first day of the week in the middle of winter.’

The second possibility is The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse. Iris will host a readalong of this classic and although I don’t think I will join, I wanted to let you know, just in case you might be interested. Here is the blurb:

Rudolf leaves his comfortable origins in Delft by ship for Java to help run the family’s estates there. He moves from plantation to plantation, attempting to understand the ways of the local peoples, their version of Islam and their relationship to their land. On a visit to the capital, Jakarta, he falls in love with a teenage girl, Jenny, who he courts surreptitiously via his sister, with grave consequences for the reality of their relationships. Eventually they marry, and make a hard colonist-couple’s life theirs, bear, lose and raise children, before Jenny on her visit to the home country discovers all the comforts of which she has been deprived in Java. Back at the plantation homestead, as the back-breaking work of establishing and maintaining business takes its toll on Rudolf, Jenny becomes estranged from him, and the bitter resentments of relatives eat at her until a terrible solution is achieved.

I have many other books on my piles. I might read another Cees Nooteboom this year, I still have a few I haven’t read yet.

If you are looking for suggestions for Dutch Literature Month here is a post I did last year Dutch Literature Recommendations.


There is another event I wanted to make you aware of and that is Beryl Bainbridge Week hosted by Gaskella from June 18 – 24. I already left a hasty comment saying I will be too busy to join but I have still got three unread copies which makes me think I can’t let this week pass without attempting to read at least one. I discovered Beryl Bainbridge last year on Guy’s blog and read The Dressmaker which I found excellent. The three books I still got on my piles are

The Bottle Factory Outing

An Awfully Big Adventure

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress

How about you? Do you have your Dutch Literature choices ready? Are you in for Beryl Bainbridge Week?