Monday, June 27, 2011

The Assault by Harry Mulisch first published in 1982 in Dutch; published in English in 1985 – fiction

"For a book to have deeply serious intentions, as this one does, is, of course, no guarantee of artistic success. But Mr. Mulisch also brings exceptional skill and imagination to his task." from a review by John Gross in the New York Times on May 31, 1985

Harry Mulisch (1927-2010), considered an important Dutch post-World War II writer, was the son of a Jewish mother and Austrian father. Mulisch’s father worked for a bank that catalogued property stolen from the Netherlands' Jewish community and after the war he was sentenced to three years in prison. Mulisch’s father maintained that he collaborated with the Nazis in an effort to save his family. His wife and son survived the war. The author’s maternal grandmother, however, was killed.

It is easy to see how the novel, The Assault, grew out of Mulisch’s complicated history, though the characters and the plot are not autobiographical.  The novel starts with a short prologue that sets the scene in a home in Haarlem and then recounts moments both during and after the war as seen through the eyes and experiences of the son Anton who was twelve in January of 1945. The novel is divided into five “episodes,” each pegged to a year in Anton’s life: 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981.

This is not a specifically Jewish story. Anton and his family are not Jewish. They get into trouble because they unwittingly get caught up in the repercussions after “the assault” - the murder committed by members of the Resistance of a Chief Inspector of Police. Anton never sees his brother or parents again. We see that throughout his life he tries to leave the past behind, but in each of the episodes because of various encounters, he is forced to look back into his past and puzzle over details he thought he had forgotten that have been deeply submerged.

It's clear that a major theme in this novel is that victims of war are scarred for life. Memory and its accompanying pain lie buried waiting to be summoned by a chance encounter or remark. For the above reasons this novel is an important contribution to a corpus of work, both non-fiction and fiction, having to do with the trauma of war on survivors and the children of survivors.

The Assault was made into a movie in the Netherlands that won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1986.

To read the obituary for Harry Mulisch published in the New York Times, click here.

Alice Schwarz – author’s mother
    Harry Mulisch – her son; author

The Netherlands

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