Obligatory reading novels in high school, that's what the book "The Assault" reminds many of. Along with Vanished by Tim Krabbé has been a stable entry on the Top 10 of most widely read books in school reading lists.
At the end of the first chapter of The Assault, Anton Steenwijk, the main character, feels something in his pocket that he cannot identify. A dice, it appears, from the Ludo game that Anton was playing with his family, just a few hours before. At the time Anton discovers the dice, his father, mother and brother Peter have already been liquidated by the Germans. As a retaliation for the fatal assault on a prominent NSB* member, which they had however, not committed. Anton’s parents and brother were not guilty of the death of the NSB member. Guilt. It is one of the major themes in The Assault. Who is responsible for what and are you also guilty if circumstances forced you to act the way you did?
The story begins in January 1945 and ends sometime in 1981. Of the thirty-five years the book covers, we see Anton only a few times in his life: as a 20-year-old student in 1952, a doctor in training in 1962 and later as an anesthesiologist, husband and father in 1966 and finally in 1981. At all these moments Anton is faced with the assault of January '45, the incident that changed the direction of his life so rigorously. And every time Anton asks himself: Why did it happen? Who was to blame for the death of his innocent parents and brother? The Germans? The assassinated NSB member? The actual murderers? The neighbors who fulfilled a dubious role in the course of this history? Or was everyone guilty, and therefore actually nobody? Or was it just the circumstances; was it just coincidence that everything went the way it went?
Sometimes life seems to be determined by a dice roll, by chance. But that is not so, Mulisch seemingly wants to say. Everything is determined by cause and effect. Every human action, every human choice has consequences, big or small, and you cannot hide behind compelling circumstances, caused by a dice roll. Everyone has done what he did and not someone else. Then why does history sometimes seem to be determined by dice rolls? That is because, as a human being, you do not have an adequate overview of the events. It seems chaotic, but it is not. This is beautifully portrayed by Mulisch in the prologue of the book, as Anton unsuccessfully tries to keep the overview over the ripples in the water caused by passing motor boats. There is a method in the madness, as Shakespeare once described it.
Apart from coincidence, guilt and responsibility, The Assault is also about past and future. How do you deal with the future if something traumatic has happened in the past? Do you walk backwards into the future, with your face to the past? Or do you try your best to leave the past behind and look forward to what is to come?