Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Persistence of Memory

The AssaultThe Assault 
by Harry Mulisch

“Besides, whoever keeps the future in front of him and the past at his back is doing something else that's hard to imagine. For the image implies that events somehow already exist in the future, reach the present at a determined moment, and finally come to rest in the past. But nothing exists in the future; it is empty; one might die at any minute. Therefore such a person has his face toward the void, whereas it is the past behind him that is visible, stored in the memory.”  ― Harry Mulisch, The Assault

 Harry Mulisch was born in Haarlem, Netherlands and lived in Amsterdam from 1958 until his death in 2010. His father was from Austria-Hungary and emigrated to the Netherlands after the First World War. During the German occupation in World War II his father worked for a German bank, which also dealt with confiscated Jewish assets, while his mother, Alice Schwarz, was Jewish. Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp thanks to Mulisch's father's collaboration with the Nazis, but his maternal grandmother died in a gas chamber.

His novel, The Assault, opens in Netherlands near the end of World War II. The narrative focuses on the persistence of memory in his protagonist, Anton Steenwijk. Five episodes from Anton Steenwijk's life are described in this novel, representing five stations of his life: from 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981. It is the first that is the most significant, describing the assault of the novel's title. It is his memory of this assault, the massacre of his family, that permeates and shapes the rest of his life in ways that he has difficulty comprehending. The narrative presents episodes in Anton's life; each episode overshadowed by his memories of the assault.

At one level, the book can be read as a detective story, reminiscent of Simenon, with intriguing twists and turns and a definite solution. It is also a morality tale (though one that doesn't point out any easy moral), a dark fable about design and accident, strength and weakness, and the ways in which guilt and innocence can overlap and intermingle. What impressed me was the authors ability to convey Anton's feelings of alienation and isolation from others. His struggle, often due to his memories, to overcome these feelings color all of the subsequent episodes.
“The process of putting Haarlem behind him resembled the changes a man goes through when he divorces. He takes a girl friend to forget his wife, but just doing that prolongs the connection with the wife. Possibly things will work out only with the next girl friend - although the third one has the best chance. Boundaries have to be continuously sealed off, but it's a hopeless job, fore everything touches everything else in this world. A beginning never disappears, not even with the ending.” 

Told against the backdrop of shifting Dutch post-war society, centered around significant points in that history -- the reaction to the events in Budapest in 1956, the release of Willy Lages (head of the Gestapo in Holland), anti-nuclear protests in 1981 -- Mulisch paints a canvas of the difficulties of Dutch society in coming to terms with the events of the war. There are no easy answers for Mulisch, no simple blame to assign, even where it first appears there might be. Mulisch, using a taut and subtle style, explores questions of guilt and innocence, heroism and cowardice in this spellbinding and moving novel. While very different in style and tone from Wolfgang Koeppens' Death in Rome, Mulisch's novel is just as effective in portraying the lasting impact of the War on Europe.  The Assault is one of the best novels I have read, in fact it is one of the finest examples of European postwar fiction.
Mulisch also gained international recognition with the film adaptation of The Assault. It received an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best foreign movie in 1986.  

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Brian Joseph said...

I have seen the film which I found superb.

Luckily I have never experienced anything so traumatic and life altering as the event described in this book. It makes me thing just how such a horror would reverberate throughout the life of a person.

James said...

I have not experienced such a trauma either. Having not seen the film myself I shall have to plan a viewing.

Anonymous said...

So glad to see one of our Dutch writers being reviewed and so kindly praised! I emigrated to The Netherlands many years ago and have read The Assault (De Aanslag). It is such a good book! I discovered and read Simon Vestdijk's Pastorale 1943 this year, Vestdijk is another one of our nationsl treasures. If interested, review Pastorale 1943 in on my blog dd 23 January 2014.

James said...

Thanks for your recommendation. I will read your review and consider Simon Vestdijk's novel.