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Evil affects innocent people like a cancer.
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.