Harry Mulisch is apparently one of the most famous living Dutch writers; he was born in 1927 to a Jewish mother and a father of German extraction who would go on to cooperate with the Nazis in exchange for his family’s safety. He’s said “I am the Second World War”; so too is Anton Steenwijk, protagonist of his The Assault.
The book has a very simple hook: in the last days of World War Two, young Anton lives with his parents and older brother in their house, second from the left in a row of four, on a quay in the outskirts of Haarlem. One night, as a collaborating local policeman is cycling down his street, the Resistance shoots him; he’s shot in front of the neighbors to the right’s house, but they carry him in front of Anton’s family’s house before the Nazis come. His house is burned down; his family shot. That’s Episode One; in four subsequent episodes, taking us up to 1981 (the year before the book was written), the aftereffects of the war are traced through Dutch society, as the adolescent, adult and middle-aged Anton learns, in bits and pieces, the full story of what happened on the night his life changed.
So in this sense it’s partly a historical detective story: the promise of the story, which Mulisch explores and which keeps us engrossed, is the belief that, with enough digging, we can understand, really understand, what really happened — what we saw, and what it means.
But of course, that’s a fallacy. There’s an image in the opening section of the book of the young Anton tracing ripples in the water, trying to keep track as they spread outward, bounce off things, roll back over each other and start new ripples. It’s what happens in the book (Mulisch’s writing is constructed in large part of these microcosmic moments), as Dutch from different pre- and post-war generations talk about the shifting political landscape; as family ties are made and broken; as psychological fallout shifts its shape. There are two last puzzle pieces dropped into place in the final pages, as an old man encounters an even older woman at a mass demonstration against nuclear weapons. One you’ll see coming, one you won’t — and neither, of course, rolls back history.
I’ve heard that Mulisch is occasionally mocked for being, in his books, conspicuously erudite, and their are indeed moments where he can’t quite keep himself from dropping some knowledge (also something very specific, often telling), but it really helps the book when that thing is something like a tidbit about the Greek concept of time, in the course of Mulisch’s musings on the subject. He talks about the passage of time quite a bit — noting the weirdness of being the same age as your father was when x happened, or of having a child who can only think of things you lived through as part of history — which is part of what gives this 180-page book such moving accumulative sweep. I was initially worried, especially given the episodic chronology and primary emphasis on the moments in Anton’s life where his war history is explicitly discussed, that the books would seem skimpy. (I also gather there’s been some complaints about the translation, which does perhaps seem less than fully encompassing, like the functions and sounds of individual words aren’t fully integrated with the whole. But it’s literature in translation; who can say? If you speak Dutch, tell me all about it; otherwise I’ll just have to read some other translations of the guy.) But it flows beautifully, especially if you can sit down and read chunks at a time (which is doable). It’s a book about the irretrievability and ineradicable persistence of the past, which is a current I find almost impossible not to get caught up in.