Analysis of Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

A gripping novel that challenges the notions of innocence and guilt, The Assault is considered among the greatest works of contemporary European fiction. Broken into five episodes, spanning 1945 to 1981, the novel by Dutch author Harry Mulisch (1927–2010) is termed within the prologue “the story of an incident.” This “incident” and its ensuing tale follow Anton Steenwijk, the protagonist, through his personal journey in postwar Holland.

The novel begins in Haarlem in the home of Anton Steenwijk, a 12-year-old boy, as he and his family are engaged in playing a board game. Six shots ring out in the darkness of the night. Peter, Anton’s older brother, discovers that Fake Ploeg, the chief inspector of police and a Nazi collaborator, has been assassinated. Further, the Kortewegs, the Steenwijks’ neighbors, are carrying Fake’s lifeless body from their own house to deposit it at the Steenwijks’ house. Recognizing that the Nazis will retaliate for Fake’s murder, Peter runs out to move the carcass. As Peter approaches the body, the Nazis arrive. Chaos ensues. Peter runs into the darkness. Gunshots are fired. The Steenwijks’ home is set ablaze, and Anton is separated from his family. Driven by the German convoy, Anton is taken to prison by the Germans and then to Amsterdam, where he is finally retrieved by his uncle.

The second episode of the novel jumps to 1952, revealing that Anton has entered medical school. An invitation to a birthday party from a fellow classmate living in Haarlem brings Anton back to his hometown. Anton leaves the party and begins to walk. He makes his way to the quay and discovers that the Beumers, his family’s other neighbors, still inhabit the same home as they had before the war. Mrs. Beumer invites Anton in, and he reluctantly accepts. Mrs. Beumer’s recollection of the incident jars Anton’s thoughts. He ventures out from the Beumers’ house and toward a monument that stands at the place of the incident. Anton reads the names of his parents, and the episode concludes as Anton returns back to his aunt and uncle’s home in Amsterdam.

Four years later, in 1956, the third episode begins. Anton, having recently finished medical school, has begun to specialize in anesthesiology. Now living in an apartment in Amsterdam, he encounters Fake Ploeg, Jr., at an anticommunist rally. Uncertain as to why, Anton invites Fake upstairs to his apartment. After exchanging comments regarding their present occupations, their conversation develops into a charged debate over the past incident, innocence, and accountability. Each contests the veracity of the other’s arguments. Their meeting climaxes, and Fake exits the apartment. Anton reflects upon the meeting’s instructiveness, and the episode ends.

Episode four, dated 1966, describes Anton, now married and with a daughter, and his relationship with Mr. Takes. Initially unknown to one another, each character possesses knowledge of the other’s secrets. Mr. Takes reveals to Anton his knowledge of and participation in the incident, while Anton divulges his memories of Mr. Takes’s confidant. Though both Anton and Mr. Takes gain insight from the other’s information, neither character finds solace through their discoveries. Instead, the complexities of innocence, guilt, and accountability are furthered as the fourth episode concludes.

Fifteen years pass, and the last episode begins. Anton, now remarried and with a son, suffers an anxiety attack while away on vacation. He recovers and, upon his daughter’s 16th birthday, following her request, travels to Haarlem to revisit the place of the incident. Despite its changed appearance, Anton describes the site to his daughter. They gaze upon the monument and the names of Anton’s parents. At lunch, Anton tells his daughter about Truus Coster, Mr. Takes’s confidant. Memories of her, and the incident, seep back into Anton’s mind. His emotional response prompts him and his daughter to visit her grave.

Later in the episode, Anton joins his son in a march against atomic weaponry. Amidst the crowds of people, Anton discovers Karin Korteweg, his childhood neighbor from Haarlem. Deciding that fate has brought them together at this peace rally, Karin reveals to Anton her recollection of the incident and, with it, the final wrinkle in The Assault. She details the events of that night, her memories of Anton’s brother, and the war’s aftereffects upon her family. Finally, Karin exposes why she and her father deposited Fake Ploeg before the Steenwijks’ home, as opposed to another home. Karin’s tale gives Anton complete understanding of the incident. He leaves Karin and walks amid the stream of protestors. Anton finds his son and again probes the idea of innocence and guilt, asking, “Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?” Finally overcome by a feeling of acceptance, Anton marches alongside his son, among the crowd, as the novel closes.

Noted for its brilliance, The Assault is both a psychological thriller and a discourse on humanity. Through the novel, Mulisch penetrates the innermost regions of Anton’s soul while carrying the reader along a thematic journey of accountability, betrayal, catharsis, and deliverance. Popularized by its many translations, The Assault is among Mulisch’s better-known works. Following its conversion from text into film, The Assault received both the 1987 Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The richness of the text and the complexity of its concerns render The Assault, for much of its audience, something more than just “the story of an incident.”

Mulisch, Harry. Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolph Eichmann. Translated by Robert Naborn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
———. The Discovery of Heaven: A Novel. Translated by Paul Vincent. New York: Viking, 1996.
———. Siegfried. Translated by Paul Vincent. New York: Viking, 2003.
———. The Stone Bridal Bed. Translated by Adrienne Dixon. London; New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1962.

Categories: European Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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