23 december 2010

The Assault - Harry Mulisch

"My being mortal, has yet to be proven." This often misunderstood statement by Harry Mulisch was topical again, more than one month ago. On October 30 the author died at age 83. The big nose and gray, woolly hair appeared prominently on the front pages. The news had a very elaborate item on the death of "the last of the big three" and on Saturday, November 6, the memorial and the funeral were broadcasted live on national television. Why all this attention? Was Mulisch really that brilliant as a writer? Was he among the best Dutch literature had to offer in recent decades?

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?

Past and future. Mulisch’ statement about his mortality has to be understood in that light. "The fact that so far all people in the past have died, does not mean that in future I will die too. It is very likely, but there is not a one hundred percent mathematical guarantee." Such arguments illustrate the largely optimistic view of life that Mulisch portrays, and which made him the opposite of the other of the big three, arch-pessimist W.F. Hermans. Yes, there is misery, Mulisch found, but that does not mean trouble will always remain, better times might come. And since you're not powerless, you can contribute to those better times. This could be called ‘hope’ and occasionally Mulisch manages to show that in a brilliant way in his books. Also in The Assault.

Because of his attitude Mulisch was not loved by everyone. He was seen by many as an arrogant braggart and a person who seized every opportunity to glorify himself. It was part of the myth that he wanted to create around him, was his reply. After his death, friends and acquaintances of the author stepped forward remarkably quickly to explain what a nice and approachable personality he was and that his arrogance was all play. Friendly and approachable or not, Mulisch was a good writer, maybe even a great writer, as he himself always liked to emphasise: "I am a great writer, no one can do anything about that." Giving a meaning to every individual word in a book, creating philosophical depth without getting boring and without falling into pessimism, this was what Mulisch was good at, perhaps better than anyone else. The Assault is worth it to be taken from the shelf again or from the library because the book does not deserve its dusty image as an obligatory reading list book.

* NSB = The National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands. The NSB was the only legal political party in the Netherlands during the major part of World War II. It was based on German National Socialism and Italian Fascism.

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