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In 1945, in the final throes of the Nazi occupation of Haarlem, Anton Steenwijk’s parents and older brother are killed in retaliation for the murder of a Nazi collaborator that happened on the street in front of their house. From the event itself and the immediate aftermath The Assault is broken down into chapter “episodes” that chronicle Anton’s life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. We follow him as he alternately gets on with his life, love, and career while dealing with the remnants of his haunting past. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is how Anton comes across various people who had connections to the events that led up to his family’s death. When we, and Anton himself, least expect it, another piece of the puzzle gets put into place helping not just to explain what happened that night, but also showing different dimensions of Anton’s emotional state and his capacity (or incapacity) to forgive and forget.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the politics of the times. Although I remember the nuke-crazy, Reagan 1980s with its frightening scepter of imminent Soviet attack, a lot of geo-political water has gone under the bridge since this book was published in 1982. With the current state of world affairs and the fact that our planet is perched precariously and perhaps irreversibly on the brink of environmental ruin, it is much more difficult to remember the emotion and fear of those times. Even harder to comprehend for those of us who were too young to remember, is the fear of the “Commies” in the aftermath of World War II and the saber rattling in the early days of the Cold War. For those around the world who marched en masse to try and head off the ridiculous Iraq War, the futility of the anti-nuke marches of the 1980s, like the one Anton attends in the final episode, is much easier to understand.
Mulisch’s prose is pretty straight forward but it rarely fails to draw the reader into circumstances and emotions that most of us can thankfully hardly imagine.