The note about the author printed on the last page of this novel throws much light on it: “Harry Mulisch…Holland’s most important postwar writer…[was] born in 1927 in Haarlem to a Jewish mother whose family died in the concentration camps, and an Austrian father who was jailed after the war for collaborating with the Nazis.” And on the book jacket, Mulisch adds, “It isn’t so much that I went through the Second World War; I am the Second World War.”
The narrative is divided into five “episodes.” The last four are, as the novelist explains at the start of the second, “a postscript—the cloud of ash that rises from the volcano, circles around the earth, and continues to rain down on all its continents for years.”
We are concerned with the lifelong effects on the consciousness and behavior of a twelve-year-old boy, Anton Steenwijk, of two acts of political violence that occur in the first episode. First, the murder of a sadistic Dutch collaborator by members of the antifascist underground, and second, the terrible reprisals by the Nazis on the boy’s brother and parents, who were completely innocent of the murder. These events occur in January 1945, during the last months of the war. In executing a collaborator, the members of the underground knew well that within a matter of weeks the American and English forces would be in Holland.
Several unexplained occurrences incidental to the events of the night of the murder and the following days have a traumatic effect on Anton, producing in him a neurosis that takes the form of his refusing to think about them. But gradually, in the course of the last three episodes, everything that happened on that night becomes clear to him, and he is released from the obsession that has somehow imprisoned him within the deadening effects of the events of the first episode. The Assault is a kind of psychological crime or detective mystery, in which symptoms deeply buried in the protagonist’s consciousness are uncovered. The guilty are exposed, but there is a twist to this—some of them are discovered to be both innocent and guilty. The novel ends with Anton Steenwijk asking himself: “Was everyone both guilty and not guilty? Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?” This can be reasonably asked of the Dutch characters in the novel, though not of the Nazis, who are unquestionably guilty. The question is not rhetorical but real, and there are several answers to it.
On that January night the four members of the Steenwijk family, father, mother, and two sons—Peter, aged seventeen, and Anton, aged twelve—are in the front room of their house on the outskirts of Haarlem, occupying themselves as best they can with study and games. The room is the only one in the house they can keep comparatively warm by putting a few sticks in the stove. Light comes from a thin metal pipe split at the end into a …