I am not quite sure by what happy chance Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault arrived on my ‘to read’ list, but I am profoundly glad that it did. If it was via your recommendation then please accept my unending gratitude. Although it seems premature to crown ‘the best work of fiction I have read all year’, so it must be.
Anton Steenwijk is an ordinary boy – keen on planes and cars, arguing with his older brother – living in the extraordinary time and place of Occupied Holland at the tail-end of the Second World War. Perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his peers, with a love of and keen eye for nature which will later see him publish poems on the subject. He is happy to spend time watching the wave patterns created by the motorboats on the canal outside his Haarlem home. He recalls ‘branches… bleached by the sun’, notices ‘bare, ice-coated, impassive trees that were totally unaware of what wartime was all about’, while damaged railway lines stand ‘upright like the horns of a snail’.
The War’s major intrusion into his life is via the hunger of a growing lad, although he also takes a stand for a classmate – perhaps saving a life as he does so – but he acts impulsively, without too much reflection on his motives. The incident remains unrecalled and unremarked upon until one winter’s night, when he is engulfed by terrible events that he neither fully witnesses nor understands, yet which leave him – the only survivor – with the revelation:
Fire and this steel – that was the War.
Despite this knowledge, as he matures he is successful in pushing away his memories in order to survive, before a series of chance encounters force him into unravelling the fate of his family. The secrets of one night of Resistance assassination and SS reprisal are imparted to him throughout his life, in a series of episodes from young student to middle-aged father, shocking Anton out of his attempt to live as passive a life as possible.
It is difficult not to think, on reading this book as we reach the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, of the consequences for the innocent caught up in war; the apparently small events sparked by unseen actors which rapidly take on greater significance. Chasing the tangled stories leads Anton to a semblance of an answer to the question why? as well as a realisation that the answer is both more and less important than he could have guessed. In the end, as the Resistance fighter Takes tells him:
everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no-one else.
Mulisch’s book is a clever blend of taut thriller, historical mystery and psychological study, with plenty to show the reader about reactions to traumatic events experienced by the young. We see how assumptions about the past can colour someone’s thinking so completely, yet later be exploded as resting on a false or misunderstood reading of those events. What appear to be key conversations and actions slip out of the memory, making a nonsense of any attempt to create patterns out of random events. This failure recalling Anton’s doomed attempts to figure out the complexity of the crossing, interlaced waves created by the motorboats passing him by on the canal.