Mulisch, Harry. The Assault. Translated by Claire Nicolas White. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Right away, I am struck by the imagery of The Assault. The detail with which Mulisch describes people and places is extraordinary. The year is 1945 in occupied Holland. Twelve year old Anton Steenwijk’s whole world changes the night a Nazi collaborator is murdered and the body moved to the Steenwijk’s front yard. Despite the war being nearly over, just months away really, Holland is still very much under the thumb of the Germans. Retaliation is inevitable and Anton’s life is forever changed. The Assault follows Anton through adulthood and the cold reality that no matter how he lives his life he can never escape his past. The Why haunts him. Each chapter is an episode, relating back to the assault. In the second episode, as a 19 year old medical student he attends a party in his hometown. He hasn’t been back since that fateful night. In episode three the year is 1956 and Anton is 23 years old and married. He runs into a man from his past with tragic stories to tell of his own. By the fourth episode he has passed his final exams to become an anesthesiologist. He attends a funeral and meets yet another man from his past. Each year he becomes more successful and grounded in his present life, but the past continues to circle him until the final episode. By 1981 Anton is 48 years old and has remarried. His second wife gives him a son. The Why of his past becomes an ever widening circle of reason. Explanations expose the answers to all his questions but do they soothe his agonized memory?
Lines that struck me, “Not until people are called Adolph again will the Second World War be really behind us” (p 13), “A man who has never been hungry may possess a more refined palate, but he has no idea what it means to eat” (p 43), and “Everything is forgotten in the end” (p 185).
Reason read: there is a day in January (the 24th) when people are supposed to thank their mentors. The Assault is in the Book Lust chapter about coming of age, so I imagine there is a boy who has mentor he needs to thank.
Author fact: Mulisch lost his mother to the concentration camps and his father was jailed after the war for collaborating with the Nazis. Think about that for a second.
Book trivia: The cover photograph is that of Dutch policeman Fake Krist lying dead in the street, October 25th, 1944.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Boys Coming of Age” (p 45).