Home Book Reviews The Assault: Harry Mulisch

The Assault: Harry Mulisch

by J. C. Greenway
The Assault by Harry Mulisch
Share 10mh on Social Media

I am not quite sure by what happy chance The Assault by Harry Mulisch 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 assault by harry mulisch

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 The Assault 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.

The Assault by Harry Mulisch 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.

Share 10mh on Social Media

Related Articles


odonnelljack52 18 December 2014 - 8:15 pm

this goes on my must read list (which is already too long for one lifetime). cheers.

J. C. Greenway 19 December 2014 - 5:03 pm

Same here. That said, it’s a slender volume, so shouldn’t edge out too many others!

Curt Kastens 9 April 2015 - 8:33 am

I have read the book more than once and watched the movie about 10 times. Sadly I must report that I am the only person that really understands the book. Most people think that the book is about Anton Steenwejk. That is actually a sub plot. A quite interesting sub plot it is. Yet the book is really about using understanding of history to understand the present. If you really get it, the book is not about Anton it is about the collaborator Ploeg.
The secret explicitly revealed at the end hides a even more meaningful secret that is only hinted at much in the jail cell when when the wounded Johanna Schaft talks with Anton.

Curt Kastens 9 January 2017 - 11:28 pm

It was on this night (9th of January) shortly after supper in the Netherlands that Fake Ploeg was assassinated on his way home from work. His family was waithing for him at home that night with some packed suitcases. They had been told that they were leaving on a train that night with their first destination being Lübeck. From Lübeck they were to get on a boat to Sweden.
Of course we know that this infamous “collaborator”, a coworker of Fake Krist, never made it home. We did not know that as his arrival grew more and more overdue the panic of his wife and children grew with each passing minute. We also know now that they did not know that their husband, and father, was told that there would be a third part to the journey. The third part was to be from Sweden to the USSR by submarine.
It was only through this ruse that Ploeg’s handlers could be sure that we would not take matters in to his own hands to try to save himself and his family. Of course his family could not have known that because it would not have made any sense to them at all.
By coincidence it was also on this night in 1776 that Thomas Paine began setting the presses to publish Common Sense which would appear the next morning in Philadelphia. It was also after 11 pm on January 9th that Marie Agnes von Tresckow (geboren Zedlitz) went in to labor and latter gave birth to Henning von Tresckow in the early morning hours of the 10 of January 1901. These things appear to be just a coincidence but are they just a coincidence?

Curt Kastens 25 January 2017 - 2:16 am

Then the really funny thing is that just hours after these comments were sent to 10mh,net, an almost unknown website, from a location in Germany the former Bundes Präsident Roman Herzog dies. Former Präsident Herzog had become a close friend to Onno Quist. Who was a close friend to Harry Mulisch, the author not only of the Assault, but also of The Discovery of Heaven.. Then ironically Onno Quist dies just one week later on the 17th of January. The day that President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, which he began considering, yes you guessed it, one week earlier on the 10th of January, Setting the stage for the reappearence of BRADLEY Manning, played by Chelsea Manning, in the TV series Dirk Gentley’s holistic dective agency.

Curt Kastens 25 January 2017 - 6:27 am

Ok why would you post the reply to a comment before you post the original commnet? Is it caught in a time loop?

J. C. Greenway 10 February 2017 - 10:51 am

Hello Curt, yes, apologies for that! The earlier comment got caught up in the queue. It should be back in sync now.

Thanks for adding some different and illuminating perspectives on the book. You are making me want to re-read it now!

Curt Kastens 16 January 2017 - 10:33 pm

Spoiler Alert: Do not read unless you have already read the book
One learns very little in the book about the Jewish family that was in hiding two doors down from the Steenwijk family. I will fill you in on their post war fate after I reveal another little understood secret not excplicitly revealed in the book. It is a secret implicitly revealed.
During the assissination of Inspector Ploeg Trus Koster (the GRU cover name for Johanna Schaft) was wounded in an exchange of gunfire because the pistol of her partner jammed and Ploeg was not killed immediately. Therefore the two did not get far. They took cover among some bushes or trees around the corner. It was winter time. There was not much to conceal them.
Their position was betrayed by a woman yelliing from the second story window of a near by house. Years later when Anton met Cor Takes who took part in the assassination he eventually learns that Cor thinks that this woman should be executed for collaboration. But Anton has not yet learned himself that the family in the house two doors down from his on that day was harboring a Jewish family. Therefore he could not have made the connection that the woman who betrayed Cor and Trus was at that very moment hiding a Jewish family in her house.
You may ask why would a woman hiding a Jewish family betray the resistence. The answer is simple math. By betraying the position of the resistence members she was giving up the lives of at most two people. One of these people was apparently already wounded. By this act she would gain the confidence of the occupying power. She and her family would not be subject to reprisals. Just as importantly her house would not be turned inside out in a search for weapons or radios or other contriband or even worse. Five lives to be traded for two or perhaps one life.
One of those lives was a young Jewish child. We can call him Adam Smeets to protect his privacy. Well after the war the Smeets family did not immigrate to Israel as you might have expected it to do. No, this family immigrated to Toronto Canada.
In 1967 Adam became an officer in the Canadian Air Force. In 1972 he was stationed in Zweibruecken Germany. In May of 1973 he was visiting a friend who was stationed at Ramstein Air Base. There were Canadians there in 1972 as well. On a Sunday in late May Adam and his friend went for a walk along a stream just west of the town of Tripstadt near Kaiserslautern. The trial along the stream is just lovely at that location. During their walk they caught up to three young women. The women were speaking Arabic and that intrigued the two young men from Canada. It turns out that these young women were students at the university in Kaiserslautern whose costs were being paid by their wealthy families.
On Tuesday Sept. 11th 1973 Adam and one of these students, Khadijeh were married in the city hall in Kaiserslautern. They did not have time for a honeymoon immediately after the ceremony. It was then time for adminstrative proceedures with the military. Almost one month later, on Saturday October 6th, they were able to depart for their honeymoon to southern France.
They are still married and have 3 children and 5 grandchildren. Adam retired from the Air Force in 1994. They then moved to Ottowa were they still live. Adam worked as a consultant and lobbyist for the pharmasutical industry until his retirement. in 2008.
How do I know this. Because while living in Ottowa Adam made friends with an Iranian friend of our family who introduced me to him when we went to Canada for a visit. BS you say. You say that I am making this up because there are just way to many symbolic coincidences, and lucky, or perhaps unlikely coincidences, in this story for it to be true. I can cetainly understand that your reaction is a normal reaction. That is why I left out the most extraordinary coincidence of all.

Curt Kastens 28 January 2017 - 4:07 am

Here is a link to further information on a person who was involved with the events of that night.

Curt Kastens 6 March 2019 - 1:27 am

Born late in the night of the 9th of January.
Born before sunrise on the 10th of January
Printed through the night of 9-10 January to arise with the morning light.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.