There’s a popular argument for the existence of God, which is that the world, as we see and experience it, is complexly ordered, and so someone must be responsible for this order. Which is nice and logical, of course, but, rightly or wrongly, when I look at the world I don’t see harmony, I see chaos, especially where humanity is concerned. When I think about human existence it strikes me as overwhelmingly random. Without exception, you’re thrown into a situation over which you have no control whatsoever, a situation – whether good or bad – that is unstable, where with each passing second something could happen that could alter the fabric of your life. And this, at least partly, is what Harry Mulisch’s acclaimed Dutch novel is about.
The Assault spans decades in the life of Anton Steenwijk. It opens in 1945, a time when ‘almost all of Europe had been liberated and were once more rejoicing’; but this is Holland, and the Nazis are, unfortunately, still hanging around. Despite the war, the atmosphere in the Steenwijk household is peaceful, domestic; the family are spending the evening together; the eldest son is doing his homework, with the help of his father; the mother is unravelling a sweater. Later, they start to play a board game. Then, with no warning, six gunshots punctuate the night like the sound of the flapping of giant moth wings, and everything changes. Mulisch emphasises the normality of the situation prior to the shots almost as a way of lulling you into a false sense of security, the same false sense of security that the family themselves feel. Moreover, it is necessary that you believe that this is a normal family, that you understand that this – the assault that occurs – could happen to anyone, that remarkable things can and do happen to unremarkable people.
[Nazi collaborator and police officer Fake Krist lays dead in Haarlem, Netherlands, after being shot by the resistance]
Of course, you now want to know what the assault is. The details of the tragedy, which is partly based on a true story, are not important, not in relation to this review, anyway. What interests me is what I touched upon in the introduction, which is just how unpredictable life is. One event, one moment…no warning, and nothing is ever the same again. Anton, the Steenwijk’s youngest son, and only twelve at the time, is uprooted from Haarlem, and moved to Amsterdam; he is adopted by his aunt and uncle. More significantly, he carries the event around with him, is influenced by it, even when he thinks that he is paying it no mind, because in avoidance of something one still has a relationship with it. Towards the middle of the novel, Mulisch introduces another important character, Cor Takes, who interacts with Anton as an adult. He is more obviously affected by the assault, he, year-on-year, has it at the forefront of his mind, he makes no effort to let it go. Yet it is the case that both characters cannot escape it, or the war in Holland as a whole, they are tied to it; it is simply that they deal with that in different ways. The horrible truth of the matter is that one does not live with war or tragedy for the duration of the conflict or incident, one lives with it forever; this is, I think, Mulisch’s point.
One might ask, how do I know this? How do I know that one lives with tragedy long after the event, that it becomes part of you? Well, it isn’t something I have learnt from literature, that’s for sure. I’ve had my own experiences, which I won’t go into here, and I have known many people – refugees, rape victims, trafficked women, etc – who have suffered more than I. And I saw their story in The Assault, in Anton Steenwijk’s behaviour and mindset. Mulisch’s book is, for me, the most believable, and powerful, exploration of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have encountered in fiction. As noted, Anton rarely acknowledges the past to himself, and yet his choices, his actions, scream about it. For example, he studies medicine, because ‘he was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium that must be maintained whenever the butchers plant their knives in someone – this balancing on the edge between life and death.’ And I don’t think it takes a genius to understand why he might have an interest in death, and, as an anesthesiologist, pain and consciousness and memory. Likewise, Anton chooses a wife that, he admits to himself, in some vague way reminds him of the woman with whom he shared a cell so soon after the assault.
One of the most moving passages in the book is when Anton is at the theatre watching The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s famous last play, and he suddenly experiences an intensely painful flashback. The play is not, of course, at all concerned with war and yet Steenwijk sees something in it, in an innocuous scene involving a family sat around a table, that reminds him of his own family and that awful night in 1945. This kind of thing is, sadly, very familiar to me. As are the nightmares that Anton experiences. Indeed, I know a young woman who all but avoids sleep altogether because she cannot cope with the terrible nightmares she suffers as a result of what once happened to her. Even if I thought the rest of his book was dogshit [I don’t], I would applaud Mulisch – who lived through world war two himself, who lost his grandmother in the gas chambers – for all this, for going there and nailing it in such a sensitive way.
[A performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov]
While reading the books that I intend to review I make notes for myself, I jot down a few ideas about what I want to write about, the themes, important passages, and so on. Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle, but not with The Assault. Five paragraphs already, and I have not explored even half of what I wanted to prior to commencing this review, or certainly not in as much detail as I would like. Well, never mind; I guess it is important that I keep this under 3000 words, so that at least a few people will endeavour to read it. However, one thing that I do want to make explicit is that The Assault is such a brave and intelligent novel. Even in relation to something like the Nazi occupation of a country, Mulisch does not blindly take sides, he does not look for easy answers or explanations. For example, the resistance man, Takes, admits to killing and cutting up [literally into pieces] Nazis or collaborators, he longs to murder an old woman who ratted him out. There’s no romanticising of freedom fighters here, folks. In fact, Takes comments that many people only joined the resistance because they knew that Hitler was losing; and while I would rather not believe this, I do, unfortunately, find it very easy to believe.
Mulisch also pulls no punches in relation to the dead body that inspires the assault. When Fake Ploeg is shot a neighbour moves the corpse so that it it is outside the Steenwijk’s house, knowing full-well what this means, what will happen when the Nazis find it there. Moreover, Peter Steenwijk goes outside intent on moving it again [this scene is, in fact, grimly amusing], either back to from where it came, or to another house. Again, he knows what the consequences will be when it is found. Mulisch is not afraid to acknowledge the ruthlessness of people caught in life or death situations. Better them, than us. Even though all are innocent. Every one of us would like to think that we would not do such a thing, that we would not condemn someone else in order to save ourselves, but it is impossible to say with any certainty how one would behave in such a situation.
“Not until people are called Adolf again will the Second World War be really behind us. But that means we’d have to have a third world war, which would mean the end of Adolfs forever.”
You may have noticed that I have not so far not indulged in any criticism, and the reason for this is that The Assault is almost without blemish. The most I could say in this regard is that the scene between Anton and the woman in the dark prison cell is slightly cringeworthy. I just, I don’t know, struggled to get on board with a wounded woman babbling on about poetry and love, while feeling up a young boy’s face. A more serious complaint would be that there is a hell of a lot of contrivance, or coincidence in the book. Anton meets Takes, who played a major role in the assault, at a funeral, for example; in fact, he overhears him talking about it. This is many years after the event, of course. Yet one could argue that these coincidences are all part of, are evidence of Mulisch’s ideas about living with war and the impossibility of escaping one’s past. Throughout his life, Anton consistently bumps into people that are connected to the war, because it is simply a fact that everyone was involved in it in some way, you didn’t have a choice, it was unavoidable, it was there, on your doorstep, like Fake Ploeg’s dead body.