Some novels announce their genius from the opening page – ‘Bleak House’ and ‘First Circle’ being good examples. Some take longer to build momentum and grab your attention. Others, like ‘The Assault’ by Harry Mulisch, provide an enjoyable read throughout, but it’s only when a highly satisfying denouement puts the final pieces of the puzzle in place that the book comes together, leaving you with the thought: ‘That was a damn good read’.
‘The Assault’ opens in German occupied Holland during the first few days of 1945. Liberation is close at hand, and the Dutch resistance takes their chance to exact revenge on a local policeman for collaboration. An assassination takes place outside a group of four remote houses as the man makes his way home. Knowing the Germans will burn down the house closest to the shooting, the occupiers drag the body through the January snow to the front of one of the neighbours. Twelve year old Anton Steenwijk watches as the body is dumped in front of his home and as his elder brother Peter attempts to move it on again just as the authorities arrive. Arrests are quickly made, and Anton finds himself in a police cell overnight, before being released into the custody of his Aunt and Uncle. It is from them that he learns his family has been killed in retaliation and his home destroyed.
The rest of the book follows Anton as he grows into adulthood, and tries to put the past behind him. But a series of encounters with people involved in the shooting keep dragging him back to that day, as he learns more about what actually happened, until, many years later, he finally learns the full truth.
‘The Assault’ takes the one overwhelming question of war – why? – and mixes it inventively with a more personal reflection on fate and the repercussions of our actions. Anton is reluctantly forced to face up to his past and ask some difficult questions. Why did the assignation take place where it did? Why was the body moved in front of his house rather than one of the others? Are we fated in life? Are events ultimately meaningless? Do we have our backs to the past whilst facing the future, or backs to the future whilst facing the past?
The result is a kind of human equivalent of a nuclear reaction. Circumstances - some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless – come together to cause an event to happen, which itself leads to repercussions – some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless.
When you finally put the book down, you are left with almost as many questions as Anton. Did the characters involved with the shooting act correctly? If they had acted differently would the resulting situation have been any better? Is it impossible to escape our past?
‘The Assault’ is a fine, thought provoking read and at 180 odd pages, a quick one too. It’s the first book I’ve read by Harry Mulisch - one of Holland’s leading writers and a nominee for the Man Booker International award this year - and it probably wont be the last.