Name the great trio of post-war Dutch authors. W F Hermans, I adore. Gerhard van het Reve, I’ve never read. Harry Mulisch, I’ve now discovered.
Firstly that picture of a real assassination on the cover. Dutch policeman Fake Krist was shot by the Dutch resistance on October 25,1944. The body left lying in the gutter to rot shows the contempt felt in Holland for Nazi collaborators. That sentiment is prevalent both before and throughout the critical action of The Assault. Unfortunately for the protagonist, Anton Steenwijk, aged 12, the body isn’t left in the gutter. It is dragged by his neighbours to the front of his house.
What follows is a callous Nazi reprisal in which Anton loses his parents and his 17-year old brother. No spoiler that – you can find as much on the back cover. For that is not the point of the novel. The focus is more on the aftermath and the affects on the boy. This much I will tell – it doesn’t destroy, though there is a feeling that it does diminish him.
To dynamic personalities, the present is a ship that drives its bow through the rough seas of the future. To more passive ones, it is rather like a raft drifting along with the tide.
The assault inevitably casts a long shadow and it takes a lifetime for Anton to discover the truth of what happened on that eventful night in 1945. Here’s another surprise – Anton doesn’t seek it. It finds him. Because sometimes the truth will simply out.
It’s not what he or I expected.
I wouldn’t call this a sensational read. It hard to generate momentum with a protagonist as passive as Anton. Thus the pace of the novel matches the way the secret behind The Assault rises to the surface. Over the years, through the decades. In a series of chance encounters with other players in the drama. Some ring true, others don’t. Either way, The Assault is revisited from many angles. Each perspective offering a new insight. Love alongside betrayal, tenderness amidst the violence and at the centre, a dreadful secret. One borne of the circumstances of this war. One that should never have been. I can’t think of a more fitting witness to the tragic futility of it all.