THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch


Email this review


A novel by a prominant Dutch writer that trades in old traumas, delayed reactions, drawn-back layers of truth. Anton Steenwijk is only 12 in 1945, living in fear with his family in Haarlem, the war ending but the German noose still desperately tight around Holland. A local collaborator, the chief of police, is shot outside the Steenwijks' house. Actually, the body falls before someone else's door--but it's then immediately moved in front of the Steenwijks'. When Anton's brother Peter rushes out to drag the body elsewhere--everyone fearing reprisals when the Nazis discover the assassination--it's too late: the Germans have already arrived. Peter is promptly shot; Anton and his parents are taken away separately (the parents to a quick death); the house is burned to the ground. Anton is interrogated but spared on account of his age, then released to relatives. Years pass. Anton becomes a doctor, has a family (his wife an unconscious facsimile of a woman Anton was comforted by in jail that terrible night in 1945--who turns out, he later discovers, to have been the murderer of the police chief); and only once must he frontally re-encounter the past, at a funeral attended by old Resistance members, who by accident let loose answers to the questions Anton has wondered about (but never really wanted answered) for years. Mulisch's book is artful in its study of postponed knowledge and nightmare. Although a last section, involving an anti-nuclear rally in Amsterdam where a last puzzle piece is serendipitously presented to Anton, too grossly draws a political parallel that doesn't quite hold up--nevertheless, the book is generally light on black-and-white ethical assumptions and heavy on the gradualness of memory and the perils of knowledge. Lean and subtle work.

Pub Date: June 4th, 1985
ISBN: 0394744209
Publisher: Pantheon