The Assault

Harry Mulisch

translated from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White
Harvill Press 1985
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
An evening in January 1945 in German-occupied Holland... Anton Steenwijk's family are playing ludo when a leading collaborator, Ploeg, is shot on the street outside. The neighbours drag his body in front of the Steenwijk residence and in the ensuing retaliation Anton's parents and brother are killed and the house destroyed, while twelve year old Anton spends the night in prison. So runs the dramatic opening of The Assault (De Aanslag).

Anton is brought up by an uncle and aunt in Amsterdam and represses his memories of that night. But chance events over the years bring them to the surface: in 1952, visiting a friend, he discovers the memorial to his family and the hostages shot that day; in 1956 he runs into Ploeg's son; in 1966 his marriage to the daughter of a Resistance leader leads to a meeting with the man who shot Ploeg; and in 1981 he meets one of the neighbours who moved the body. The result is a psychologically convincing portrait of the effects of trauma, of coping mechanisms both intellectual and emotional, and of the way time and age influence memory.

The Assault is a kind of detective story, with information gradually discovered by the protagonist, although he is not searching for it, and with an unexpected twist at the end. It is also a political novel. Though Anton remains uninterested in politics, it forms the inescapable background to his story: the ethics of using violence to resist fascism, anti-communist riots in 1956, the release on sickness grounds of a leading war criminal, and anti-war rallies in 1981. His story parallels, perhaps, that of Holland itself, his personal traumas mirroring those of the nation. The Assault is an intense and powerful work — for some it may be uncomfortably so — but one that is also hard to put down.

November 2002

External links:
- buy from, or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Harry Mulisch - The Discovery of Heaven
- Hugo Claus - The Sorrow of Belgium
- more Dutch literature
- books about the Low Countries
- more war fiction
- books published by Harvill Press
%T The Assault
%A Mulisch, Harry
%M Dutch
%F White, Claire Nicolas
%I Harvill Press
%D 1985
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0002710110
%P 204pp