The Assault Summary

Harry Mulisch

The Assault

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The Assault Summary

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The Assault is a 1982 novel by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. It focuses on the life of Anton Steenwijk, who, at age twelve, is the only member of his family to survive after Nazi occupation forces find a collaborator’s murdered body in front of their house in Haarlem. The novel takes place in five sections, each from a different point in Anton’s life, as the mystery of that night unfolds, despite his active attempts to avoid contemplating his family’s fate. A literary detective novel of sorts, starring a reluctant detective, The Assault depicts the long reach a fateful night can have, as well as the lingering effects of the Second World War on the Dutch population.

The book opens in January of 1945, where young Anton is huddled with his parents and brother Peter in a single room of the house, as that is all they can afford to heat. They are starving, and Peter hasn’t left the house in months as his parents fear the prospect of his conscription into the war. The family hears gunshots outside and Peter runs to the window, only to see Fake Ploeg, a known Nazi collaborator, lying dead on their neighbor’s lawn. He then sees his neighbor, Mr. Korteweg, and his daughter (with whom the Steenwijks get along well) moving the body in front of Anton and Peter’s house. Peter, despite his mother’s protestations, leaves the house in order to move the boy once again in order to avoid Nazi retaliation. Unfortunately, he is not able to do so in time and, taking Ploeg’s gun, runs off into the night. Meanwhile, the German soldiers arrive at the house and, after checking their papers, take Anton and his parents outside and set fire to their home. Anton is placed alone in a soldier’s car and separated from his parents, who he never sees again. The German soldier, having forgotten about Anton, takes him a police station where he is placed in a cell with a mysterious woman who refuses to reveal her identify or reason for being in the prison. Anton falls asleep with her telling him a story and comforting him. The next day, Anton is taken to live with his aunt and uncle in Amsterdam. After five months, his uncle goes to newly liberated Haarlem to discover the truth about Anton’s family. He soon discovers that his parents were murdered along with twenty-nine other hostages by the Nazis, and, his initial hopes are dashed as he soon discovers that Peter was murdered that night as well.

The next section takes place in 1952 when Anton is in medical school. He returns to Haarlem for the first time since the murders in order to attend a party, which happens to be across the canal from his childhood home. His old neighbor, Mrs. Beumer, who tells him of a memorial plaque for the people killed that night, and also accuses his mother of attacking the soldiers, thus sealing her fate. Anton visits the plaque before leaving the city.

We next rejoin Anton in 1956, once he has graduated from medical school and is living on his own. His apartment is blocked by anticommunist protests, and among the protestors he finds Fake Ploeg, Jr., son of the collaborator murdered in 1945. Anton invites him into his apartment and Fake discusses how his life was just as difficult, if not more so, after his own father’s death. Fake had to abandon his own studies to support his family and is now a repairman while Anton is a doctor.

In the following section, in 1966, Anton is married with a four-year-old daughter. While attending a funeral for a friend of his father-in-law, Anton overhears someone discussing Fake’s death, and, after confronting him, realizes that he was involved in the assault and murder, as was his girlfriend. The man remains staunch that the murder was necessary for the Resistance, though he knew that the Germans would retaliate. Anton soon realizes that the man’s girlfriend was the mysterious woman in the cell with him that night. He realizes that he married his wife in part because of her resemblance to the woman, and meets with the man the next day to confirm this and uncover more information. The man shows Anton the gun the woman used to murder Ploeg and describes the aftermath, when Ploeg shoots her in the back and the man escapes, leaving her to be arrested alone, which he regrets.

The final section takes place in 1981, fifteen years later, and Anton is divorced from his first wife and married to a young student. He attends an anti-nuclear protest where he runs into his daughter, now pregnant. He also sees an elderly woman watching him. She approaches him and introduces herself as Karin Korteweg, the daughter who moved Ploeg’s body in front of Anton’s home that night in 1945. Karin confesses that she and her father moved the body because they feared their home getting burned down in retribution, thereby killing the lizards that had given him solace since his wife’s death. When he asked why she didn’t place the body in front of their neighbors, the Aarts, Karin explains that she knew that they were hiding a Jewish family, who would certainly be discovered and murdered if the body had been left there. However, her father’s fear of retribution was so severe that he committed suicide three years later.

Unspooling slowly over one man’s life, The Assault showcases how repressed memories can be rocketed to the forefront by chance encounters and history colliding with the personal. While the 1985 English translation by Claire Nicolas White has been roundly criticized, the work itself was highly praised, including John Updike in the New Yorker referring to it as “brilliant” and “a kind of detective story” that “combines the fascination of its swift, skillfully unfolded plot with that of a study on the psychology of repressed memory”