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The Assault by Harry Mulisch
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The Assault (original 1982; edition 1986)

by Harry Mulisch

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1,574224,641 (3.82)35
Member:Eliz12
Title:The Assault
Authors:Harry Mulisch
Info:Pantheon (1986), Edition: American ed, Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
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The Assault by Harry Mulisch (1982)

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English (13)  Dutch (8)  Portuguese (1)  All languages (22)
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I will quote for you the blurb:

“It is the winter of 1945, the last dark days of the war in occupied Holland. A Nazi collaborator, infamous for his cruelty, is assassinated as he rides home on his bicycle. The Germans retaliate by slaughtering an innocent family: only the youngest son, twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk, survives.

The Assault traces the complex repercussions of this nightmarish event on Anton's life. Determined to forget, he opts for a carefully normal existence—a prudent marriage, a successful career, and colorless passivity. But the past keeps breaking through, in relentless memories and in chance encounters with the other actors in the drama, until Anton finally learns what really happened that night in 1945, and why.”

Once again, this novel's magic lies in the author's handling of the narrator. Published in 1985, I have no idea why we didn't read this after reading all those heavy holocaust novels, perhaps because in this novel, there is no easy discussion in the classrooms. But because of the large room of thought this novel creates, I feel it is all the more important.

When I say The Assault is though-provoking, I am freely invoking that cliché. Perhaps you know how deeply personal The Assault was for me as it dealt with things that German children must cope with on their own, guilt, the past, ignorance, excuses, avoidance, et cetera. I'd never inspected my coping methods as acutely as when confronted in spectacular luminosity the way in which Anton avoids the past his entire life. But like the Greeks, he is always facing it.

The Assault reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day its quiet narrator who reflects on events typical of the second world war, but there the similarities end. Had this been eligible, The Assault would have won the Booker prize, but what are awards anyway? Where Remains had been affable in it's avoidance, there is no pretension about what Mulisch and Anton conspire to do. Anton refuses to remember, forced down 'memory-lane' while it is his subconscious that lures him into not turning away the unwanted guest, yearning to be fulfilled.

A reader might be tempted to pity Anton from the blurb, as one freely did after reading Remains, but pity or hate the butler, Mulisch does not bring us through these moments, titled 'episodes', to make us feel sorry. Mulisch, in actuality, feels sorry for us, the readers. But he does not pose questions of morality to us with apology. These are things we all must face in our lives, unless we are like that aloof butler traveling the countryside.

This novel isn't cynical, nor is it hopeful in the way The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherril is. The heart races as the events in Anton's life come to a head, but we do not pity him, not because he is unsympathetic and 'merely' the child of fate, but because Mulisch has written a concise novel that does not have room for misplaced tears. We mourn the lost child, the one whom Anton has forgotten, who died along with the rest of his family. Perhaps because Anton has been indifferent for so long, that when he finally concludes this history and looks to other memories, we only feel immense satisfaction.

I am letting myself imagine, now that the book is shut, that Anton has begun to come to his own conclusions about the many questions that Harry Mulisch poses, as I must now attempt to do. But further, that Anton changes his life, going home and finally climbs up into the cockpit, and finally opens up to the person that he once was.

While I will not answer any of the questions posed within, dealing with our history, the morality of causalities, the innocence of the guilty, I am curious about your own thoughts. The tome is not very long, and it is a fabulous piece of literature, important for many reasons, and I encourage you to read it, if not immediately buy it. Once you have, come back and let me know your thoughts. I gladly welcome discussion in the comments.

185pp. Random House. 1985.
  knotbox | Dec 1, 2014 |
"He...stood with his back to the future and his face toward the past. Whenever he thought about time, which he did once in a while, he did not conceive of events as coming out of the future to move through the present into the past. Instead, they developed out of the past in the present on their way to an unknown future."

This is a book about memory and how a memory -- in this case the massacre of the Dutch protagonist's family by the Germans in the closing days of World War II -- shapes a life. Young people are often puzzled by The Assault; the young do not face toward the past. "But nothing exists in the future; it is empty; one might die at any minute."

Anton is 12 when the act takes place. By the end of the book, he is older than his father lived to be. The reader is present for brief episodes through Anton's life, each of which reveals to him a little more about the circumstances of the atrocity, the expanding ripples of cause and effect, and the convoluted nature of guilt and innocence.

In the final pages, Anton stands with his beloved son, named after his murdered brother, in the midst of a peace demonstration in a Cold War Europe, his questions answered at last. At the edge of the demonstration, "a group of boys about sixteen years old came out of a side street. All had shaved heads, black leather jackets, black pants, and black boots with metal heels."

"But what does it matter? Everything is forgotten in the end. The shouting dies down, the waves subside, and all is silent once more." ( )
  seth_g | Oct 31, 2014 |
This is quite good. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
When I was going through my husbands books he once bought for Dutch class in high school, all considered must-read Dutch 'classics' (some are too new I think to be considered classics) I noticed that a lot deal with World War II, either during or the aftermath. I never really enjoyed books about war, because the horrors hit pretty close to home. My grandparents lived through this, for them this wasn't fiction, it was cold, hard, reality. However, the reason these books are considered classics, and are nearly mandatory reading for all high school students in The Netherlands is because they help us understand what war was like for average people. And that the war wasn't over on May 5th 1945 for most of them. Now my opinion is that it's good to learn about that period in history, to understand more about our country, and our family too.
'De aanslag' by Harry Mulisch is one of those books. Anton Steenwijk lives with his parents and brother on the outskirts of Haarlem. One night in January 1945 they are playing a board-game in the kitchen, cold and hungry but together. They hear shots outside and see a body, that of Fake Ploeg, a policeman and NSB member. And then they see their neighbors moving the body from in front of their house, to in front of the Steenwijk's house. Anton's brother Peter goes outside to move the body away from their house, but then the Germans arrive. Peter flees. Anton and his parents are forced outside. His parents are taken away and their house is torched and burns to the ground. Anton is taken to the police-station and ends up at his aunt and uncle's house in Amsterdam.
The rest of the book tells the story of how Anton deals with this event in the rest of his life. In several episodes he meets people who all were connected to the attack, such as the son of Fake Ploeg, one of the resistance fighters involved in the assassination and the neighbors. Because of these encounters he slowly comes to terms with his own feelings, and the feeling of those around him. For example, it takes him a while to realize that his daughter, born after the war, really has a different way of looking at that time than he does.
I really enjoyed this book, for as far as you can enjoy a book about such a horrible and tragic event, based on reality. The book helps the reader empathize with those who survived the war, and to realize that every choice made has consequences for others. When I started I could not put it down, and read the book in one sitting. Five out of five stars. ( )
  divinenanny | Nov 27, 2013 |
This is the story of a Dutch family, who are targeted and destroyed when a Nazi collaborator is killed in the street near their dwelling. Only their youngest son Anton survives. The author checks in with Anton throughout his life, illustrating the lasting effects of war on the human spirit. ( )
  hayduke | Apr 3, 2013 |
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Overal was het al dag, maar hier was het nacht, neen, meer dan nacht. - C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Epistulae, VI, 16
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Weit, weit zurück, im Zweiten Weltkrieg wohnte ein gewisser Anton Steenwijk mit seinen Eltern und seinem Bruder am Stadtrand von Harleem.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394744209, Paperback)

A novel that probes moral devastation following a Nazi retaliation in a Dutch town. The Assault has been translated and published to great critical acclaim throughout Europe and in the United States.

It is the winter of 1945, the last dark days of the ware in occupied Holland. A Nazi collaborator, infamous for his cruelty, is assassinated as he rides on his bicycle. The Germans retaliate by slaughtering an innocent family: only the youngest son, twelve-year-old Anton, survives.

The Assault traces the complex repercussions of this nightmarish event on Anton's life. Determined not to forget, he opts for a carefully normal existence—a prudent marriage, a successful career, and colorless passivity. But the past keeps breaking through, in relentless memories and in chance encounters with the other actors in the drama, until Anton finally learns what really happened that night in 1945, and why.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:42 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The execution of a collaborator and Nazi retaliation on the family of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk have lasting repercussions in Anton's life as he learns, through chance encounters, the truth of one harrowing night.

(summary from another edition)

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