The Assault
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2002
Chief Inspector Ploeg is shot and killed in the winter of 1945, in Nazi-occupied Holland. He was a cruel collaborator with Holland's Nazi occupation force, and was assassinated by Bolsheviks on a street where four houses stand. His killers will run away in the dark of night, but Nazi troops will assault the home of young Anton Steenwijk, killing his parents and brother. This is because Chief Inspector Ploeg's body was found in front of their house. It had been moved there after the murder.
Anton spends the rest of the story trying to discover the exact events of that night, including why the body was moved before his house. He is reluctant to discover this past, because the memory is painful, and he almost does not want such illogical evil to have a logical explanation. Anton lives the second half of the twentieth century as normally as he can, encountering Ploeg's bullheaded son, and the various people who had also lived on his street, one at a time, with many years passing between each meeting. Near the end of the twentieth century, closer to the modern day, he encounters one of the people who knows the full story of the moved body, and Anton finally understands the mystery.
The book's ending is both poetic and shattering. We immediatly empathize with the innocent people who had lived in those four houses, and we decry the horrible mental torture which encompassed them after WWII. The events of that evening were caused by one hateful group of people murdering the representative of another hateful group, but the ill effects accrued to people who did not deserve it. Mulisch might be telling us that evil is a cancer. The actors in the main event, Ploeg, the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks, were the evil ones, but the four innocent households suffered.
To describe the way evil imprisons the innocent, Mulisch asks us to reflect on a classic moral quandary: He uses the allegory of a person who comes across a dual execution, and is given the choice of killing one person in order to save the other. He seems to be asking us, how can one blame an innocent person for choosing the lesser of two evils? Is it that person's fault, or is it the fault of the encompassing evil? While this is not what happens in the book, it is only a story Mulisch tells, but it is similar in moral depth, and Mulisch portrays and resolves his own dilemma in a fascinating and effective fashion.
This is a well-written book, sharp and concise, with interesting and sympathetic characters. Mulisch tells us a good story about every-day people, with a deep moral message at its core, and resolves it in a way that will have thoughtful readers reflecting on the nature of good, evil, chance and morality.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2003
In Dutch highschools, this is one of those works which is read by everyone. Especially in the Netherlands this book has been analyzed to death, and I certainly won't add anything significant to the debate. The truth is that this is an incredible peace of art. Harry Mulisch is well known for his ability to write a great novel, but this is by far his best one. The story of the man who slowly discovers the truth about the events that killed his family is deeply touching, as well as telling. This book is not only about a man finding out a lost truth, it is about a country devastated through war, finding its way back on track. This story will tell you more about the spirit that lived within the Netherlands and the events that followed than some history books. I would greatly recommend this book to anyone who has a love for good literature as well as a wish to find out more about the Netherlands as a country during and after the war.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2002
1945. The Second World War is running to its end. A cold winters evening in the Dutch city of Haarlem. The Steenwijk family is sitting around a small fire. Suddenly six gunshots disturb the silence outside. Then a singular cry of pain. Never will Anton Steenwijk forget the images of that dreadful day when he, at the age of twelve, losses almost everything. Now, years later, he has to suffer those horrors again, when the truth finally starts to unfold.
Although the setting is clearly World War II, this story is not relating the heroics of soldiers or people active in the resistance. It describes the personal search for truth of a man who doesn't realise how much impact things he thought to have banished from memory have on his life. During his search he stumbles onto information that will change him completely.
The way Harry Mulisch has depicted the person of Anton Steenwijk is undoubtedly the most powerful asset of this book. Anton does not want to find the truth, but still the truth wants to be found. And what he unwillingly uncovers does not only startle him, but also leaves the reader with topics to think about. Isn't everybody guilty and not guilty at the same time?
This book reads like a train and engulfs the reader to the extend that he will never be able to forget the history of Anton Steenwijk.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 1998
The novel is about one incident, but still spans 38 years. It starts when a police officer who collaborates with the German occupiers of Holland is being assaulted and shot. In revenge, the Germans burn the house in front of which he was found, but somebody had been dragging the body around... why? The main person, a boy from the house, loses his parents and brother in the killings that take place because of the assault. He grows up in another city, and becomes a doctor. His encounters with some persons (e.g. the son of the police officer) are being documented, and his philosophical musings over the subject. Only after 38 years he finds out what really happened... (I read the originial, Dutch version.)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2005
In a Haarlem street the Dutch Resistance kills an active collaborator. In retaliation the Germans have destroyed a house in that street in which live ten-year-oldAnton Steenwijk with his parents and elder brother. Anton survives, but his parents and brother are killed. As Anton grows up, he wants to suppress all memories of that time, and it is not a coincidence that he chooses to become an anaesthetist. But of course the trauma is buried within him, and affects his mental life in many ways, some that are inexplicable to him. But the members of the resistance who had carried out the assassination are haunted also, by their knowledge that their deed had led to uninvolved people being shot. All these states of mind are explored in this story, as much that lay concealed emerges over the 36 years after the event. The reader is engaged as taut knots are loosened and unwound.

During all this time the world moves on and new political issues arise - Vietnam; the anti-nuclear movement. Do they leave the old issues behind or are they connected with them?

This short book's limpid prose is very precise, profound and rich in unobtrusive symbolism. It is all very compelling
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2004
Spanning from WWII to the 1980's is a very difficult task. To do this in 180 pages is near impossible. Mulisch does this successfully with The Assault. This story follows Anton as his family is murdered for simply having a member of the Nazi party dead in front of their house. Anton suppresses the memories of the events and restarts his live with his aunt and uncle. Through out his life though people continue to show up and jar his memory and desire to understand what happened.
Mulisch could have made this story longer and no one would have complained. He is poetic in his language and lets his readers find the details instead of revealing them. The 5th star is absent because I felt the book had some political preachiness and it seemed unrealistic for the Anton character to move on the way he does.
All in all it was a very good and quick read. Suggested for all ages.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 1998
I read the original dutch version, the story of a young boy who is faced with the ultimate tragedy of war, losing all he loves and knows. This picture of an innocent 12 year old stays with you throughout the book, even as he grows to middle age. Knowing the rest of the story as he grows older is the unfolding of a good mystery.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2010
"The Assault" is a work of fiction by Harry Mulisch. This soft cover book is 186 pages in length.

Foreword:
I came across this book as a result of my stumbling across an obituary in one of our local papers. It took up about 1/3 of a page and mentioned that the author was renowned for his WW II story "The Assault". Previously I'd never heard of Harry Mulisch or this tale. However, because of the high praise mentioned for the book in the obit. plus the fact that I've always had an interest in events concerning WW II, I decided to get this book...a very rewarding decision.

*SPOILER*

It's Holland, January 1945...remembered as the 'winter of starvation' for reasons most of us can guess, but little appreciate. As the war is winding down in the still occupied town of Haarlem, a hated Nazi collaborator has been shot and killed on the street one freezing winter night. This occurs in front of a collection of four houses, containing four families. Anton Steenjwijk, then a 12 year old boy, is about to have is life irrevocably changed in the following minutes. Mistaken information, deliberate misdirection and a Gestapo that really doesn't care if the gets the murderer, just so long as it appears someone is made to pay...all these factors have a part to play in Anton's confusion (at the time and for years to come) regarding this unforgettable night.

His story continues through to 1981, and despite his every attempt to suppress his memory of this night of horror, a series of chance meetings, sporadically spread over the years with other people involved in that infamous few moments, bring him to finally and painfully understand the peculiar circumstances that occurred that fateful evening.

*END SPOILER*

Well written (nothing seems to be lost in translation to English), intriguing and almost impossible to put down. The story is so poignant, so emotionally traumatizing, when seen through Anton's eyes, it's almost impossible not to empathize with him, even though he spends most of his adult years trying to simply forget.

Conclusion:
A short story about some of the horrific events of WW II. Not really graphic, but told in a manner that inspires awe and admiration towards the gifted author and the people about whom he writes. 5 Stars.

Ray Nicholson

P.S.
Those of us who have never experienced a hostile occupation, especially of the scale that occurred in WW II and the abuse that accompanied it, can never really appreciated what memories the survivors must have. I've looked after War Vets, and every once in a while you'd see a guy sitting by himself, quietly crying...you'd never interfere, you knew why...memories!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2008
One can get a vivid enough introduction to this book from previous customer reviews, with the great majority of which I share an enthusiasm. This is an economically-written story centered on a single violent incident, the exploration of which enlightens the life of one individual, a set of related individuals, and the entire society and the era it suffered through, that is, Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. Written without pretentions, without philosophizing, seemingly straightforward, yet I was left with layer after layer of emotional responses, intellectual ironies, and an understanding that I had not so fully brought to bear. While deceptive in its style and the seeming simplicity of its central event, and even the method of mystery-book clues-and-discovery, it is profound in its effect.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2003
When my work took me to Holland for a few months, I asked people there what Dutch novels they would recommend. They all said "The Assault". It would certainly be an exageration to say that Holland has no literature, but not much of an exageration. It is renowned for its great painters and architects, not its writers. But in "The Assault" at least, they have produced an indisputable masterpiece. If you read just one Dutch novel, this has to be it.
An exquisitely poignant evocation of life in German-occupied Holland in World War II, it invites the reader to make moral judgements and then systematically undermines those judgements. It is a restrained, undemonstrative, beautifully written work that unfolds gradually and in a most unexpected way. Highly recommended.
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