Celebrated Dutch author's novel explores survival and war's afteraffects

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch. New York: Pantheon. Translated from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White. 185 pp. $13.95. This is the first American publication of the celebrated Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch. (Two of his earlier novels, ``The Stone Bridal Bed'' and ``Two Women,'' were translated into English and have appeared in Great Britain.) It is overdue, for Mulisch emerges in this tense and fascinating novel -- published in 1982 in his native country -- as a sophisticated and resourceful craftsman who has much to say about the lingering aftereffects of World War II on his homeland and his generation (Mulisch was born in 1927).

``The Assault'' is about survival, and survival's effects on personality and personal relationships. It is also a mystery story, divided into several ``Episodes,'' of which the first recounts an incomprehensible act of aggression followed by violent reprisal. The last, occurring 36 years later, explains -- as well as anything can -- why an innocent family was destroyed and an uncomprehending boy made to remain a victim for years thereafter.

Mulisch begins the story with a prologue set in January 1945 in the northern inland city of Haarlem. Although much of the rest of Europe has been liberated, the Nazi presence remains strong and menacing, and families like the Steenwijks -- on whom the focus rests -- remain apprehensive and keep quietly to themselves.

Then, a dramatic initial ``Episode'' shatters this cautious calm. The sound of a shot brings the Steenwijks to their front windows; they see on the street the body of local police chief Fake Ploeg -- a notorious Nazi collaborator known as ``the greatest murderer and traitor in Haarlem'' -- fallen before one of their neighbor's houses. They watch, unbelieving, as those neighbors, the Kortewegs, drag the body away and dump it on their doorstep. Then, before the Steenwijks can rid themselves of this incriminating evidence, the German occupation police arrive on the scene.

Three of the family are executed; only 13-year-old Anton survives. Thrown into jail, he shares a cell with a female member of the Dutch Resistance movement presumably responsible for the murder. The next day Anton is taken to Amsterdam, through ``enemy fire,'' to live with relatives.

The subsequent episodes circle back repeatedly to grapple with the events of that night and with Anton's intermittent efforts to understand why his family was so ``chosen.'' In 1952, just out of medical school, Anton returns to Haarlem for a birthday party. He revisits former acquaintances and begins to learn what others know of the assault. In 1956, Anton meets the murdered policeman's son and is disturbed and challenged by the latter's belligerent insistence that innocence and guilt are not as clear-cut as Anton wishes to believe.

The year 1966 brings Anton, now married and a father, to a funeral attended by former Resistance fighters and heavy with echoes of the war years. Here, he learns much more about the night that forever altered his life, measuring his passivity against the tenacious belief that evil must be met with violent resistance. Finally, in 1981, now in his 40s, ``plagued by worries and anxieties,'' Anton attends an antinuclear rally with his teen-age daughter. There, a chance meeting completes his understanding of the complex motives that made the Kortewegs ``mark'' the Steenwijks' house and leaves him with an unanswerable question -- ``Was everyone both guilty and not guilty?'' -- that is in fact his release from years of trauma and his avenue to peace.

Mulisch builds toward this great climactic scene with masterly patience and rhythm. It vibrates with tension and perfectly rounds off a psychological tour de force that strikes unexpectedly deep. We observe Anton Steenwijk aging and changing, gradually comprehending the depth of a commitment and passion he had never shared or understood, and can scarcely imagine. As we do so, we ourselves begin to understand what it must have been to live this experience. It seems to me that this is the highest kind of achievement of which fiction is capable -- and that Harry Mulisch's subtle and resonant novel ranks with the finest European fiction of recent years.

Bruce Allen is a regular reviewer for the Monitor.

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