When Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize earlier this year, Mark Orthofor at The Complete Review’s Literary Saloon said that, while he can see a strong case for Vargas Llosa, he thought Amos Oz or Harry Mulisch were the more deserving. I hadn’t read either and, a few days later, hoping to get a jump on next year’s Nobel winner, I went and bought Harry Mulisch’s The Assault (De Aanslag, 1982 ; tr. from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White, 1985). Sadly, when I returned from the book store, I found out that Mulisch had died that day and will never be a Nobel laureate. I still haven’t read any Vargas Llosa (have a few in hand, though), but I can certainly see why Mulisch would be a strong candidate based on this book alone, and it is not even considered his masterpiece.
The book starts out softly, almost with a comforting air of nostalgia, by describing a row of four houses, all with homey names. Twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk has grown up on this street, getting to know the neighbors, some of whom are more friendly than others. It obviously hard living, but in this prologue we feel there is friendship. However, the year is 1945. Any warmth or coziness we feel from the scene is subverted by our growing knowledge of the true state of these homes.
It was January, nineteen forty-five. Almost all of Europe had been liberated and was once more rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the War. But every day in Haarlem looked more like one of those spent gray clinkers that they used to take out of the stove, when there had still been coal to burn.
It is frigid outside, and everyone is starving. Peter, Anton’s seventeen-year-old brother hasn’t been out of the house for months, not even for school, because they are afraid he will be conscripted.
On that January night, Anton, Peter and their mother and father move to the back of the house to play a game as it gets dark outside. It’s a wonderfully rendered scene, and there’s some hope in the air due to the simple fact that the family is together engaging in a pastime. Suddenly they hear gunshots outside. Peter, to the horror of his parents, runs to the window and discovers that there is a body lying in the street in front of their neighbor’s home, neighbors the Steenwijks are quite friendly with. The Steenwijks, still contemplating the tragedy that an assassination could bring to the street, are shocked when their neighbors run outside and move the body from their part of the street to the front of the Steenwijk’s home.
The German soldiers have been known to retaliate quickly and fiercely, and the fact that the body is in front of the Steenwijk’s home is probably going to be excuse enough for them to burn the home to the ground. Petrified, the Steenwijk parents watch as their oldest son Peter runs into the street to try to drag the body again. It turns out that the dead man is Chief Inspector Fake Ploeg, known as a violent Nazi collaborator. Unfortunately, before Peter can do anything, the Germans arrive. Peter runs through a fence. Anton looks on in shock as the Germans bully his parents. In the confusion, Anton is ushered outside and into a police car, where, eventually, he watches his house burn down, leaving a gap in that line of four homes.
The police send Anton to stay with his uncle and aunt while they figure out what to do. No one knows what has happened to Peter or Anton’s parents, but the war doesn’t last much longer. A few months later, when the war has ended, Anton finds out that his entire family was killed that January night.
The book jumps to 1952, and says:
All the rest is a postscript — the cloud of ash that rises into the stratosphere from the volcano, circles around the earth, and continues to rain down on all its continents for years.
It may be postscript, but we still have quite a large chunk of the book left. Through it Anton attempts to forget that night and the war and just move on. He goes to a middling school and becomes a middling doctor, specializing in anesthesiology. Through the years (the book moves from 1952 to 1956, 1966, and finally 1981), Anton grows older, that night becomes more and more unbelievable but is always vivid, despite his best wishes:
Boundaries have to be continuously sealed off, but it’s a hopeless job, for everything touches everything else in this world. A beginning never disappears, not even with the ending.
The book doesn’t just track Anton’s life, though. Through chance encounters with others involved in that fateful night, Anton learns some of the motives behind the actions, but this, strangely, only makes issues of guilt and innocence murkier. This is a fantastic book about chance and fate, about guilt and innocence, all against the backdrop of the twentieth century as the big issues range from World War II to Budapest to nuclear weapon talks in the 1980s. For all its scope, it remains intimate, just like that opening section when we looked on the four homes lined up in a row.