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THE ASSAULT

By Harry Mulisch
Translated by from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White
New York: Pantheon Books, 1985
ISBN: 0-394-74420-9 185 pages

Bob Corbett
August 2015

This is a very cleverly conceived and written work that chronicles the last days of Nazi occupation of Holland and the life-long effect that period of history had on Dutch people.

The novel is the selected history of Anton Steenwijk. As the story open it is the last days of WWII in Haarlem, Holland. Anton is only 12 years old. A hated Dutch police officer working for the Germans is murdered in front of Antonís house. His Jewish family, mother, father and brother, were killed by the police in retaliation, but young Anton, then in 6th grade is taken to a police station and eventually released into the custody of his uncle.

The novel then jumps to the second episode which takes place 7 years later in 1952. Anton was now 20 years old and in medical school. Neither he nor his uncle, Van Liempt, who had adopted Anton, had searched out the events surrounding the death of Antonís family. Finally Van Liempt went to the old homestead looking into the disappearance of Antonís family. He discovers that Antonís mother and father had been shot in 1945, as was Peter, his brother. The Van Liempts have no children, and had effectively adopted Anton.

Soon after Anton goes to a birthday party for one of his medical school classmates and since it is near to where he had live, for the first time since the war he visits the site of his childhood home. He discovers there is a monument there, he had forgotten about it, but his uncle had once told him but Anton he had refused to go to the unveiling

The third episode takes place in 1956 when Anton is 24. He had passed his exams and began an internship in several hospitals. He specializes in anesthesia. At an anti-communist rally near his apartment he meets Fake Ploeg, his old classmate and son of the man killed in front of Antonís house. They have arguments and a fight. However, Ploeg comes back to tell him that he does remember how Anton stood up for him in school. They part, certainly not friends, but have some better understanding of one another.

The fourth episode is in 1966 and he is 34. He had met a woman in London, Saskia De Graaff from Amsterdam and they married in 1960. Now they have a four year old daughter, Sandra.

They go to a funeral of her fatherís war-time buddies. They meet a man who turns out was the officer who killed the guy who was in front of Antonís house, and also the lover of the woman whom Anton had met on that night many years ago when he had been taken to jail that night his parents and brother had been killed. This woman, herself in jail and wounded, had taken care of the young Anton. Anton and the former officer have a brutally frank discussion of how these things all happened and how it worked out back in 1945.

In the last episode it is 1981 and Anton is 48. He had divorced Saskia in 1967. In 1968 married Liesbeth, an art history student. Just a year later they have son, Peter (Antonís brotherís name), and in 1981 his son is 12 (same age as Anton was when the whole event happened of his familyís death).

Anton has health problems but on his daughter Sandraís 16th birthday he takes her to see the spot of her grandparentsí deaths and to their graves.

On the day of a major anti-nuclear march Anton has a terrible toothache and needs a dentist. The dentist wonít see Anton unless he agrees to go to this anti-nuke protest. He does and meets the girl who had lived next door back in 1945. In their discussion the full absurdity of what happen that night becomes clear to Anton and he just goes away having to deal with the utter absurdity of the ďwhyĒ of this whole incident which determined much of the rest of his life.

The novel is brilliantly conceived and very well written. The emphasis is on how some crucial event such as this death of his family when he was only 12 could virtually control the rest of his life. Yet, when little by little, over nearly the rest of his life, he learns bits and pieces of this defining moment of his life, and discovers that the real reason leading to his parents and brotherís deaths was the result of a simply absurd and stupid set of events.

I was very impressed with the structure of the novel, with 7 chapters and 7 ďmomentsĒ in Antonís life which started at age 12 and simply dominate the meaning and nature of the rest of his life, and yet the incident itself borders on the completely absurd! It is a very well told story.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu