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Harry Mulisch: De aanslag (The Assault)

Anton Steenwijk, twelve years old, lives with his parents and seventeen year old brother on the outskirts of Haarlem. There is a group of four houses on a quay, each with a twee name – theirs is called Carefree. There are three lots of neighbours – the Beumers, a retired couple, friendly with the Steenwijks, Mr. Korteweg, a widower and unemployed sailor and his daughter Karin, a nurse, and another couple who kept themselves to themselves. It is January 1945. After D-Day, it looked as though the Allies would sweep into the Netherlands in the summer of 1944 but they were held back at the Battle of Arnhem. By January 1945, when this novel opens, Netherlands was still occupied by the Germans. Life is hard for the Steenwijks, as food and fuel are both hard to come by. Peter is doing badly at school but there is a risk that, if he leaves the house, he will taken off to a Nazi labour camp.

One evening, the family is at home, thinking of going to bed, when they hear shots outside. They look out of the window and see that someone has been shot outside the Kortewegs’ house. Then, to their horror, they see the two Kortewegs come out of their house and move the body to the front of their house. Anton had already recognised the victim as Ploeg. He was the police chief and had been collaborating with the Nazis, causing numerous deaths of Dutch people. Anton is at school with Ploeg’s son, Fake (the same name as his father). Peter’s reaction is to move the body back, as he knows they will be blamed but his parents urge him to keep back, stating that, as they had nothing to do with the incident, they have nothing to fear. Peter dashes out, takes Ploeg’s gun and starts to move the body. At this point the police suddenly arrive and Peter flees, with the gun. The Gestapo enter the house and arrest Mr. and Mrs. Steenwijk while Anton is put into a police car. He is eventually taken to a police station, where he is put into a dark cell with another prisoner, a young woman, and then taken to Amsterdam, where he is handed over to his uncle and aunt. They eventually learn that his parents and brother have been shot. Anton is brought up by his uncle and aunt and goes to university to study medicine.

The effect on Anton seems to be one of trying to blot it out of his mind. He makes up his mind not to return to Haarlem, even for a visit. Though he has friends, he does not seem to have close friends. He avoids all discussion of and interest in politics, even though, politically, the times are turbulent in the Netherlands. He pursues his medical career, becoming an anesthiologist. But, it is clear that in Mulisch’s mind, we cannot escape life and our past. Seven years after his parents’ death, he receives an invitation from a friend whose parents live in Haarlem (but only moved there after the war) for a birthday party. Initially, reluctant to go, he finally decides to do so. He meets the Beumers – Mr. Beumer clearly has Alzheimer’s – and learns some more about the events of that night which, understandably, has a traumatic effect on him. But he carries on with his life, gets married and has a daughter. But, every so often, some unforeseen event connected with that night suddenly intrudes, quite forcibly, into his life, which shakes him out his complacency.

Eventually, he pieces the events of that night together, learning from the key participants more or less what happened and why. As Mulisch makes clear, his past is just as much a part of him, even more perhaps, than his future. He can try and ignore it but it will come back to haunt him. It is a superbly told tale, covering some of Mulisch’s main concerns – the effect of war on people man’s inhumanity to man, our responsibility towards others, both specific people and future generations – and remains one of his best.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 1985 by Pantheon