Dog Bite Degustation: Mulisch's "The Assault"

on Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The first time I came upon the twist on the final page of Harry Mulisch's incredible novel The Assault, I was in such a profound state of moral shock that I came to underrate the brilliance of all that came before it. Indeed, it was on the strength of the twist alone that the novel was immediately propelled into my stratosphere of all-time favourites. Of all the books in May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge, The Assault is the one with which I am least intimately familiar but, strangely, the one I have most looked forward to rereading. I wondered how the book would stand up a second time, whether knowing the twist would make it any less shocking. It doesn't. But it allows a more balanced reading, where one can be immersed in the ever-knotting complexities of civilian life during times of war without fear of it all fading into the background on the last page.

The Assault is a spellbinding examination of complicity, allegiance and the moral imperatives of conflict. It is also, rather painfully, a meditation on the vagaries of chance; how bystanders can be sucked into hell with the simple flip of a coin. It starts off at the tail end of World War Two, in the small dutch city of Haarlem, where the Steenwijk family are doing their best to stay out trouble. One night they hear gunshots nearby and peer out their window to see Police Chief Fake Ploeg, the infamous Nazi collaborator, lying dead on their neighbour's sidewalk. To their horror, they then see the neighbour and his daughter rush out, drag the body down the road and deposit it out the front of their house. What follows is terrifying and brutal. The Steenwijk family is slaughtered and their house burnt to the ground. The only survivor is twelve-year-old Anton, who is taken by the authorities to live with his uncle and aunt.

Anton spends his later life running away from his past, but just as chance destroyed his childhood, it also forces him to revisit it. At four different times he comes across people who were major players in the events of that dreadful night. First there are his elderly neighbours, the Beumers. When Anton finds himself back in Haarlem on business, he visits them and is finally told what really happened. Next, during a student demonstration he meets his old classmate, the much maligned Fake Ploeg Junior. Stuck in a dreary, menial job, the assassinated policeman's son makes Anton question the nature of pain from the enemy's perspective. It was, after all, not only his family that was destroyed when those gunshots rang out. Many years later, at a dinner party at his in-laws', Anton chances to overhear a conversation between former Dutch resistance fighters and realises that one of them was the man who shot Ploeg. When confronted he gives Anton the most simple utilitarian argument for the assassination. It was for the greater good. Anton asks whether he would have done it if it had been his own parents that would be killed in reprisal. Of course not, replied the old resistance man. Though he lost both a brother and the love of his life in the operation.

Throughout the novel there is much rumination over people's ever- changing perspectives on good and evil . The delineation between ally and enemy seems fluid, as evidenced by the wars in Korea and Vietnam, not to mention the post-War metamorphosis of Stalin. So too is the border between friend and foe fluid, whether in social or romantic contexts. There is also considerable discussion of the ways in which people are drawn into war. Luck, often bad luck, plays as much a part as conviction.

By the final chapter, Anton has come to understand what happened to his family and, to some extent why. But there is one aching residual question. If Ploeg was killed outside the Korteweg house, why drag the body to the Steenwijks's? Wouldn't it have made the most sense to leave it outside the Beumers's, as Anton's brother had tried to do before being cut down in a hail of bullets? The couple had already lived a full life. They had no children to risk losing. If not the Beumers, then what about those antisocial Aaartses, the couple who lived across the road and didn't speak to anyone? They had set themselves apart and should suffer the consequences. The answer lies in one last chance encounter, when Anton is already an old man, with Karen Korteweg - she who had helped her father drag the body. In that answer comes the twist, one which will set a magnet to your moral compass and strip bare the irrational absurdity of self-preservation and sacrifice. Sometimes, it seems, even the most morally reprehensible act is terrifyingly, absolutely right.


Anonymous said...

Could there be an even deeper secret be found in the book than the one that was actually revealed at the end of the book? Does one secret explicitly revealed hide an even deeper secret that is only implied but is of even of a much greater magnitude than the one that is feed to the reader? Early on in the story Anton is reading about a time capsule. His father states, the better you understand history the better you understand the present. Later when Anton is in the jail cell with the woman who was wounded in the attack on Ploeg and captured afterwards, she tells Anton, Ploeg had to die because he could have betrayed many more. I have to wonder what made Ploeg different from any other member of the Gestapo who the collaborators worked with? Was Ploeg different? Was Ploeg actually an Idiot as the Gestapo agent who conducted the interrogation of the Kortiwiks claimed when he remarked that only an idiot would ride home at night in the dark on a bicycle when he was working for the Gestapo? Did the author actually spell the truth out for you but you could not recognize it because it would mean you would have to confront something so terrifying and so troubling you would prefer not to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

If Ploeg was a double agent why was he assissinated by the resistance?
Could he have been murdered by one part of the resistance that did not know he was a double agent because he was working for another part of the resistance? That would certianly be plausible as the resistance in each NAZI occupied country was a loose coalition of groups that ranged from traditional conservative to Stalinist. But I think that if you know the history of the Netherlands you could come to an even more incredible conclusion.
If the secret that was explicitly revealed in this book left you in a state of shock, as it did me, the secret hinted at over and over but never stated anywhere, and that I think the book challenges us to discover, will knock you off your feet.
It is for this reason that I think that this book is the most underrated book of the 20th century.

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