I did not learn until last month that Dutch author Harry Mulisch died in late November 2010, but even though The Assault is the only Mulisch book I have read, the news that he is gone saddens me. And because The Assault is so well crafted and tells such a memorable story, I intend to see what else of his is available to readers in this country.
The novel is set in Haarlem in late 1945, during the last few weeks of Germany’s harsh occupation of The Netherlands. As is always the case, a few have decided to make life easier for themselves and their families by collaborating with their occupiers rather than resisting them. Toward the very end of the war, the assassination of one of these despicable people, a police inspector by the name of Ploeg, will lead to the near total destruction of the unfortunate Steenwijks, a family in front of whose home the German’s find Ploeg’s bullet riddled body.
In one horrible night, ten-year-old Anton Steenwijk loses everything: his parents, his only sibling, and the home he has lived in as long as he can remember. The events of that night are so shocking and so chaotic that Anton understands little of what is happening around him. All he knows, as he is being taken away by car, is that his house seems to be burning to the ground, and that his parents and brother are nowhere to be found. It is only years later, as he encounters figures from his brief Haarlem past, that Anton begins to learn the details of what really happened that night.
Now he has to deal with it.
The Assault is as much about the emotional scars of an enemy occupation of one’s homeland as it is about the physical ones. After wars, cities can be so successfully rebuilt that just a few years later it is hard to believe that they were ever destroyed in the first place. It is not so easy, however, to rebuild the emotional lives of war’s survivors, and for many that task is impossible. Anton Steenwijk, though, has been more successful at putting the war behind him than most of his contemporaries have been. He is not out there looking for the truth - but the truth seems to be looking for him. What he learns changes everything about who he thinks he is.
Bottom Line: This excellent translation of The Assault will haunt the novel’s readers long after they have turned its last page. I highly recommend this one.