A slowly unravelling mystery and a spellbinding tale of guilt and innocence, set in the Hunger Winter of 1944
As the only child of a Jewish mother and an Austrian banker who worked with the Nazis, Harry Mulisch brought together two moral extremes in his biography. It is no coincidence that the war features in his work time and again. De Aanslag (The Assault), published in 1982, is his most successful war novel. This book is a thriller and a moral-philosophical novel in one.
The ‘Hunger Winter’ of January 1945. Twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk is playing a board game with his brother Peter in the darkened back room of their house in Haarlem one evening. Suddenly they hear six shots. When they look out of the window, they see a policeman lying in the street, next to his bicycle. It turns out to be a man who was collaborating with the Nazis, and he has not survived the attack. That same night, the Germans set the family’s house on fire. Anton is locked up in a dark cell at a police station. When he is released, he discovers that his brother and parents have been executed.
In the decades after the war, Anton Steenwijk gradually finds out what happened that night. At political riots in 1956, he meets the son of the murdered policeman, who presents him with the following argument: Was it the fascists’ fault that the family’s house went up in flames and Anton’s parents died? Or was it the fault of the resistance fighters, who knew the Germans would be sure to take revenge?
Exactly ten years later, Anton talks to the embittered resistance man who killed the collaborator. But the truth of the situation only becomes clear to Anton when he meets the daughter of his former neighbours. She tells him that the policeman was shot dead in front of her family’s house but that her father wanted to save his lizards, which represented ‘eternity’ to him. They therefore moved the body so that it was found in front of the Steenwijks’ house and not in front of the house of the neighbours on the other side – as there were Jews in hiding there.
This finally resolves the mystery, a quest that has lasted for decades, but Mulisch allows the moral ambiguity of the war to remain. At the same time, this is also a book about loss and mourning: after all those years, Anton remains numb with grief – and so it is significant that he chooses the profession of anaesthetist. Nothing can change the course of events, not even coming to understand them: ‘Was everyone both guilty and not guilty? Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?’