The Assault by Harry Mulisch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Harry Mulisch's "The Assault" is a short yet profound novel, powerful, sad and full of wisdom. In a sense, it may be categorized as a mystery because we learn the whole truth only at the very end. Mr. Mulish writes "Anton felt sick. The whole story was worse than the partial one he had known." And even then, when he thought he finally learned the whole truth, there was even more to learn.
The novel is built of five episodes in Anton's life. The first begins in Haarlem near Amsterdam in January 1945. Anton is 12 and Holland is still under German occupation. The chief of local police, a German collaborator, is killed by resistance fighters close to the house occupied by Anton's family. There is an additional nasty element of the plot that I do not want to disclose. Germans take instantaneous reprisals, burn the house and kill several people. Anton is not mistreated and is allowed to live with his uncle in Amsterdam The next episodes happen in 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981.
Despite the first episode being focused on horrors of war, the novel is really about fundamental aspects of human life: randomness of fate, moral dilemmas that we may have to face and that have no right solution, how we are not able to escape from the past, and how dramatically one's perspective changes with age. The beginning of the last episode contains a stunning passage that takes a different interpretation of the relationship between the past, the present, and the future. "Nothing exists in the future; it is empty; one might die at any minute," writes Mr. Mulisch. The novel is also about human inability to live in isolation from politics. Anton is not involved or interested in politics, yet politics influences his life. The dirt inherent in politics defiles all of us.
"The Assault" is beautifully written (and translated from Dutch). Anton's conversation with a female prisoner in the first episode is deeply moving. To me, the novel would be an absolute masterpiece if not for the final piece of the cruel puzzle.
Four and three quarter stars.
View all my reviews