Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Assault by Harry Mulisch (translated by Claire Nicolas White)

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

A pensive reflection on the nature of memory and experience, this novel deserves to be far better known than it is outside the Netherlands. The story takes place over five time periods, the latter four shedding further light and adjusting perspective on the first – the eponymous assault of 1945. One night during the bitter winter of starvation, an infamously cruel Nazi collaborator is shot dead in a Haarlem street. The repercussions are instant – the family outside whose home the body lies are killed. All except the youngest, Anton Steenwijk, who is taken to a police cell and left in total darkness with a fellow prisoner, a woman.

The events of that night cannot be fully comprehended by the traumatised twelve year old, who tries to turn away from the recollection, doggedly pursuing a respectable life in postwar Europe. Yet over the years, fate brings him into contact with others involved in that particular act of resistance and its fallout. Each encounter adds more context to the incident, ripples of cause and effect, guilt and blame. The reader becomes a detective, piecing together the clues, hoping the complete picture will deliver resolution.

In a way, it does. Anton comes to understand much more about the individual and community, how moral choices are justified or regretted, how a small group of people’s actions illustrate in microcosm events on the larger stage, and how easily cracked is the veneer of civilisation. Even in the final scene, the merest hint of the far right cuts a horizontal line across the vertical march for peace.

This book, I say again, deserves to be read.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson, The Outsider by Albert Camus

Avoid if you don’t like: WWII, politics, small novels with big questions

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter coffee with a glass of jenever, dark bread smeared with goosefat, Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction, in translation

Available from Amazon

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