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 Y and put in a zinc cylinder. The house, called “Carefree,” is one of four on the quayside—the others being “Hideaway,” “Home-at-Last,” and “Bide-a-Wee.”
From the street outside, six shots ring out. Peering through a crack in the window curtains, Peter sees a body lying in the street. Anton, Peter, and their mother then see their neighbor Mr. Korteweg, followed by his daughter, come out of his house, in front of which the body is lying, they drag it in front of the Steenwijk house. Peter recognizes the body as that of the notorious collaborator, Fake Ploeg, the chief of police, whose son, also named Fake, is one of Anton’s schoolmates. Realizing that Korteweg’s purpose is to incriminate his neighbors in the eyes of the police, Peter rushes out of Carefree, determined to move the body somewhere else. At that moment, three of the military police arrive. Peter snatches Ploeg’s gun from his hand and rushes off into the darkness. Anton never sees him again. The SS men pour into Carefree taking Anton away from his parents, whom they later shoot. They set the house on fire, throwing hand grenades into the blaze and completely destroying it.
Anton is taken to the police station and put into a dark cell whose only other inhabitant is a woman. Later he discovers that her name is Truus Coster. She is a Social Democrat, a member of the Dutch underground. Together with her lover Takes, she is Ploeg’s murderer.
The conversation in the complete darkness of the cell between Truus and the twelve-year-old Anton (of which Anton can understand almost nothing) begins the debate about politics, morality, and guilt that is the underlying theme, or preoccupation, of the book; its peculiar seriousness goes deeper than the sensational violence of the first episode. Convincing as the melodrama of that episode is, there is perhaps a certain irony about the consciously cinematic way in which it is presented, reminding the reader of movies about the Nazis. With their uniforms, their starry-eyed brutality, the German police and military seem to aspire to some monstrous celluloid epic about themselves. Here is a shot of Ploeg’s bicycle, after he has fallen from it, dead:
In the middle of the deserted street, in front of Mr. Korteweg’s house, lay a bicycle with its upended front wheel still turning—a dramatic effect later much used in close-ups in every movie about the Resistance.
This suggests that the scene might fit into a Nazi epic—lasting twelve years, instead of Hitler’s projected one thousand—beginning with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, continuing with the movies of the destruction of Warsaw or Amsterdam by the Luftwaffe, and ending with movies made by anti-Nazis—revealing the horrors of Belsen and Lidice. When Anton is taken to the German headquarters, the Ortskommandantur, he sees a screen Nazi type:
The German spoke with a Dutch Inspector of Police, occasionally motioning with his chin in Anton’s direction. For the first time Anton saw the man clearly. But what he saw then, in 1945, was different from what he would see now. The German was about forty years old and actually had that lean, hardened face with the horizontal scar beneath the left cheekbone—a type no longer used except by directors of comedies or grade B movies.
The cinema casts a kind of irony over nearly forty years of public and private life in this book—even over the concluding scene where Anton becomes swept up in the passionate peace demonstration of tens of thousands in Amsterdam in which all the participants seem transfigured by one emotion—love of humanity. Suddenly the great surging crowd is transformed into a panicking mob:
And as they came to the Westerkerk, on their way to the Dam, a dreadful howl of the mob sounded in the distance behind them and moved closer. Frightened, everyone turned around. What was happening? Nothing must happen now! It was unmistakably a howl of fear, which did not stop but was coming closer and closer. As it reached them, nothing at all happened, but everyone suddenly began to scream without reason—even Peter, and even Anton. A minute later the scream had passed them by and moved ahead, leaving them laughing in its wake.
The public, communal world is the world of meetings, demonstrations, the moving populace movingly photographed. But even when Anton has finally come to understand what happened on the night of Ploeg’s murder and during the terrible days that followed when his family was killed, his home destroyed—and has undergone what might be called successful self-psychoanalysis—there remains, or perhaps there arises, doubt in his mind. It is a doubt about the innocence, combined with guilt, of those who participate in public activities of the kind that makes cinema.
We are brought back to the argument of Truus Coster speaking to the boy in the condemned cell of the prison from which she is soon to be taken out and shot. Her remarks show that although there is no doubt in her mind about the wickedness of the Nazis and of their sadistic collaborator, Police Chief Ploeg, she also realizes that the boy would not have been in the cell with her, or his parents murdered, had it not been for the decision of the underground to execute Ploeg, and to do so only a few days before the English and Americans are certain to arrive in Holland. She was, in effect, pleading with Anton, asking the twelve-year-old’s forgiveness, when she said: “They’ll tell you that the Underground knew what would happen and therefore the Underground is responsible.” She defends antifascist actions based on hatred equal to the actions of the Nazis. And yet she fears that the final triumph of the Nazis may prove to have been their conversion of the anti-Nazis into men and women employing means as evil as theirs:
Hate is the darkness, that’s no good. And yet we’ve got to hate Fascists, and that’s considered perfectly all right. How is that possible? It’s because we hate them in the name of the light…whereas they hate only in the name of darkness. We hate hate itself, and for this reason our hate is better than theirs.
But that’s why it’s more difficult for us. For them everything is very simple, but for us it’s more complicated. We’ve got to become a little like them in order to fight them—so we become a little bit unlike ourselves…. Not them; they can simply remain themselves, that’s why they’re so strong. But they’ll lose in the end, because they have no light in them.
After the war, when Anton learns that his parents and his brother were killed by the Nazis as part of the reprisals for Ploeg’s murder, he goes to live with a childless uncle and aunt who treat him as their own son. He is utterly incurious about the events of that January night of terror. He studies medicine. Significantly, he becomes an anesthetist. Anesthesia seems to him a way of relieving human pain.
One day, years later, he revisits Haarlem to go to a friend’s wedding. It is the time of the Korean war and the conversation of the conservative young Dutch of that day is all about how the Communists are the real enemies, as bad as the Nazis during the Occupation. Disturbed by their chatter, Anton wanders away from the wedding party and finds himself at the Haarlem quayside, where the row of houses in which he lived as a child is still standing—but with a gap in the middle “like a missing tooth,” just beyond the place where Ploeg had been lying. Anton had not expected that neighbors of the Steenwijks might still be living here—but before he quite realizes what is happening, one of them, Mrs. Beumer, recognizes him and calls him into her house, Hideaway, inviting him to tea.
He learns from her that their neighbors the Kortewegs (the father and daughter whom the Steenwijk family saw placing Ploeg’s body in front of Carefree) moved to Australia after the end of the war. Much later, Karin, Mr. Korteweg’s daughter, reveals to Ivan that her father’s bizarre yet convincing reason for wishing that his own house should be spared was that in it he had a collection of lizards whose preservation he regarded as a matter of importance overriding all human considerations. But having got to Australia, Korteweg was unable to forgive himself for the fate which had overtaken the Steenwijks, for which he considered himself solely responsible. He committed suicide.
Why, then, Anton wishes to know, did he choose to dump Ploeg in front of Carefree and not Bide-a-Wee, the house of the Aartses, who were cold and withdrawn neighbors? The answer, which he learns only at the end of the novel, hits him with the force of a rebuke. The Aarts family had kept to themselves because throughout the occupation they had been sheltering three Jews. Thus the Steenwijk neighbors are exonerated from the charges of malice and perfidy toward his family that had lingered in Anton’s mind ever since January 1945.
At another social event—this time the funeral of a former leader of the underground—Anton overhears the end of a conversation between two men who have been talking to each other in subdued voices throughout the ceremony. One says to the other: “I shot him first in the back, then in the shoulder, and then in the stomach as I bicycled past him.” Shots he heard in the street outside a window reverberate in Anton’s memory, and he asks the speaker:
“Wasn’t there a fourth and a fifth shot? And then one more, a sixth?”
The other looked at him with half-closed eyes. “How do you know?”
“Are you talking about Ploeg, Fake Ploeg in Haarlem?… I was living there. It happened in front of our house. At least….”
“In front of your…” The man caught his breath. He had understood at once. Only on the operating table had Anton seen anyone lose all color so rapidly.
The man who fired the shots is Cor Takes, the lover of Truus Coster and fellow member of the underground. To Takes, Anton is the keeper of information that could be as revelatory to him as his own information could be to Anton. Unfortunately, however, Anton has forgotten the words of Truus that might now mean everything to Takes. “There’s a man,” she had said,
who loves me and finds me very beautiful, which I’m not at all, really. He’s the beautiful one, even though in many ways he’s terribly ugly. And I’m beautiful too, but only because I’m in love with him, though he doesn’t know it. He thinks I’m not, but I do love him.
To Anton, Cor Takes doesn’t seem at all beautiful. Whatever he may once have been, he has now acquired an identity almost as repellent as that of his ideological and political “opposite”—Ploeg. When Anton visits him in his terrible apartment, he finds a man who is still living out the Resistance, in a world where antifascism fights fascism, employing the enemy’s methods to do so. Truus is no longer alive and able to mitigate the fanatical side of his character with her love. Cor Takes tells Anton about the Anatomical Institute, the laboratory in which members of the Resistance, as well as murdering and disposing of the corpses of Nazis, condemned to death traitors and backsliders of their own organization. Still fighting the war, Takes sees in the pardoning of a sick and old Nazi war criminal the betrayal of the cause of antifascism.
The Assault is an exploration of the moral gulfs concealed in political certainties. This is a mystery that scarcely finds a solution, unless it is that of the psycho-analyzed patient, Anton Steenwijk, who, having seen the causes of the neurosis that anesthetizes him, becomes conscious of the ambiguous nature of the public world which continues around him, whether in the form of demonstrations for peace, or as panic and desperation. He does not wish to participate in this public world but he cannot avoid it. When we last see Anton Steenwijk he is walking hand in hand with his son Peter (named after the brother who ran out into the street that January night of 1945) through a demonstration which he has “joined…against his will.” He has “an ironical look in his eye.” Anton, who “has ‘lived through the War,’ as they say, one of the last, perhaps, to remember”—the others all too easily forget—has come to see that his former neighbors are at one and the same time innocent and guilty of the deaths of his parents and brother. He has also heard from Cor Takes that a former Resistance fighter has committed suicide because a Nazi war criminal has escaped punishment. He knows members of the Dutch underground still living who employed methods of fighting the Nazis which they themselves equated with those used by the Nazis. He does not have much confidence in demonstrations which, together with the good and true, also quite inevitably harbor the violent and false. Anton represents the tormented conscience of the honest survivor.
The artistic problem with which the novelist has to deal in this book is that the destructive actions of the Nazis with which it opens have the authority of pure evil harnessed to power capable of carrying out that evil. The questions of what really happened on that night of terror, and of the degrees of guilt or innocence of the Dutch characters who participated in it, may seem to the reader less interesting than the absolute of the Nazi evil. Mr. Mulisch’s achievement is to make us concerned with the actions of his Dutch characters on that night of terror and, at the end of his book, to persuade us that the potential of evil as great as that of the Nazis still exists in our world of nuclear armaments and of leaders of demonstrations against them.
December 5, 1985