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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Assault

Harry Mulisch

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To purchase The Assault

Title: The Assault
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng.: 1985)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Assault - US
The Assault - UK
. The Assault - Canada
. L'Attentat - France
. Das Attentat - Deutschland
El atentado - España
  • Translation of De aanslag
  • Translated by Claire Nicolas White
  • The Dutch film based on the novel won both the Academy Award (Oscar) and the Golden Globe for best foreign film in 1987.

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Our Assessment:

A : a strong, well-written novel about war, guilt, and fate

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 19/12/1985 Nicholas Spice
The New Yorker A 6/1/1986 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/12/1985 Stephen Spender
The NY Times A 31/5/1985 John Gross
The NY Times Book Rev. A 16/6/1985 Harold Beaver

  From the Reviews:
  • "At one level, the book can be read as a detective story, of the superior Simenon variety, with intriguing twists and turns and a definite solution. It is also a morality tale (though one that doesn't point out any easy moral), a dark fable about design and accident, strength and weakness, and the ways in which guilt and innocence can overlap and intermingle." - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "With the cool passion of a scientist, Mr. Mulisch scrapes rust from the Forties' steel hell and gives violence its anatomy." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "The Assault exemplifies on every page linguistic and stylistic flattening, the loss of cultural context and the blunting of meaning, the reduction of literature to non-literature. (...) The translator of De aanslag lacks the first two qualifications of a translator: she is neither a good reader not a good writer. (...) Her knowledge of Dutch is shaky (.....) The Assault may have been some kind of success; De aanslag remains untranslated." - Anthony Paul in 'Dutch Literature and the Translation Barrier', in Something Understood: Studies in Anglo-Dutch Literary Translation ed. Bart Westerweel et al. (1990)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Five episodes from Anton Steenwijk's life are described in this novel, five stations of his life: from 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981. It is the first that is the most significant, describing the assault of the novel's title.
       Twelve year old Anton lives with his parents and his brother in Haarlem, near Amsterdam. The war is almost at an end, but occupied Holland still suffers great hardship -- there is hardly enough food to eat, the schools are closed in the winter because they can not be heated. One January evening, "in the silence that was Holland then, six shots suddenly rang out." Fake Ploeg, "Chief Inspector of Police, the greatest murderer and traitor in Haarlem" has been shot as he rode his bicycle by. The Steenwijk's neighbors rush out and drag the body, which had fallen in front of their house, in front of the Steenwijk's house. Everyone knows the Germans will retaliate. Peter, Anton's brother runs out to move the body elsewhere, but it is too late. The Germans arrive, Peter flees, the Steenwijks are rounded up, their house immediately burned to the ground. Anton is taken away from the scene.
       Anton is not treated harshly, the police do not know what to do with him. He winds up in Amsterdam, where an uncle is called to pick him up the next day.
       Anton's parents and his brother were killed, though this is only discovered after the war is finally over. Anton is raised by his aunt and uncle. The assault is part of indelible past, but he can not directly confront it. In the second episode, in 1952, he finally ventures back to Haarlm to the scene of the crime. In 1956, during anticommunist demonstrations he runs into Fake Ploeg Jr., the son of the murdered collaborator and a former classmate of Anton's. Ploeg's life was also turned upside down by the events of that evening; he never finished school and now works as repair man. In their conversation Ploeg argues that his father was as innocent as Steenwijk's parents, that his own loss was as great as Anton's, suggesting a different measure of guilt and innocence.
       Anton becomes an anaesthesiologist, and he marries. At a funeral in 1966 he meets a man who was involved in the assault on Ploeg, and again questions of guilt and innocence are raised. The assassin, a member of the Dutch Resistance, acknowledges that they knew the Germans would retaliate, that innocents would die as a result of the attack, but he argues that he could only be held responsible for those deaths he actually caused.
       Finally, in 1981, Anton runs into one of the neighbors who had moved Ploeg's body in front of the Steenwijk house that night, learning for the first time why they had done this -- and why they had chosen this (and not another) neighboring house.
       Told against the backdrop of shifting Dutch post-war society, centered around significant points in that history -- the reaction to the events in Budapest in 1956, the release of Willy Lages (head of the Gestapo in Holland), anti-nuclear protests in 1981 -- Mulisch paints a canvas of the difficulties of Dutch society in coming to terms with the events of the war. There are no easy answers for Mulisch, no simple blame to assign, even where it first appears there might be. The hand of fate lurks strongly here, but Mulisch has a subtle touch with it.
       Very well written, The Assault is a morality play for our complex times, a far cry from most simplistic war literature. The difficulty in determining and judging right and wrong is superbly described here.
       An important, and very good, book. Highly recommended.

       Note that Claire Nicolas White's translation has been widely and resoundingly criticised; it is considered to be shockingly poor. We have not had an opportunity to compare it to the original, but it is something to keep in mind.

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The Assault: Reviews: The Assault - the movie (NL-1986):
  • IMDb site, with many links
Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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