Politics and Society

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Review of The Assault, by Harry Mulisch

   Harry Mulisch, who died only last year at about this time, was one of the most revered and beloved authors of fiction in post-war Holland. Among many critics (in Holland and abroad) he was considered, even by himself, to be a front-runner for a future Nobel Prize. It was said, he was one of
                               . . . a generation of writers who explored the complex
                               aftermath of a war in which good and evil were not as
                               simple as black and white.
              ---from NYT obituary, October, 2010
His 1982 novel, The Assault, was made into an academy award-winning movie (of the same name) in 1986, which doubtlessly advanced in the States an already burgeoning European reputation.

   The Assault is a modernist novel in the realist tradition, exploring the psychological aftermath of trauma in the life of Anton Steenwijk, whose family was summarily murdered by the Nazis in occupied Holland in the winter of 1945. The assault on the innocent townsfolk of Haarlem comes in brutal retaliation for the resistance-led assassination of a local official and Nazi collaborator, whose body is found in front of the 12-year-old boy’s family home. Proximity alone to resistance was obviously enough to condemn the family, their home,  and another 16 local “hostages” as well.
   Anton, alone amongst his family members, survives and is eventually united with his aunt and uncle in Amsterdam, where he lived out his adolescence in the years immediately following the end of the war and eventual liberation. But, as the introductory epigraph from Pliny declares:
                             “By then day had broken everywhere, but here
                               it was still night—no, more than night.”
                                                             --Letters, IV, 16

   For Anton, the rest of life-after-the-tragedy is, seemingly, a fairly straight, and flat, experience of “many days, one after another,” neither joyous nor disappointing to any unsettling degree, but disturbingly bland just the same. I quote the famous definition of life by James Joyce to intimate an affinity Mulisch has with Joyce in this regard: like a true modernist, his chronicle of Anton’s existence is rendered in a psychological register, or key, he deems consonant with Anton’s experience of it. In this particular case the resulting tone is emotionally disengaged, or affect-less. (Significantly, Anton opts for a career in anesthesiology, at the start of which he speculates – pointedly – that the patients under his care are still in pain, though they now lack the ability to experience, express or remember it.)  Though Anton can go on, it is a subtle mystery to the reader just how or even why he would.
           ". . . And in this sense Anton Steenwijk was a Greek. He stood with
           his back to the future and his face to the past."  (Pg. 151)
   The episodic structure of the novel presents us with various, chronological vignettes in the life-stages of our hero, which are almost maddeningly dull by the standard of dramatic fiction, rendered with an aloofness and detachment which can rightly be called "clinical." At times, I was convinced that I was reading a psychoanalytical case study of what we would now-a-days call "PTSD." His automaton-like perseverance marks a person estranged from himself and his own feelings about the obvious trauma of the past, and unable to absorb the threatening perplexities of the present. Our empathy comes easy where our sympathy is disallowed. Could this be what Mulisch intended? Could this be all that Mulisch intended?
   No, Mulisch is a better writer than that. He knows that a malaise is not a person, and the course of an illness, as such, is not a life story. And he believes he knows that beyond partisanship and estrangement, there is subtle tolerance and eventual engagement. Anton Steenwijk is still an active agent in this drama, after all, and gradually and eventually there is change. Each vignette shows him confronting, albeit usually inadvertently, the specters of his past: his home town - after many years away - and the monument to his martyred family; Fake Ploeg, the son of the assassinated collaborator, and a school mate from Anton’s youth;  Cor Takes, the love-struck and despondent, would-be assassin of the Dutch resistance movement, and finally Karin Korteweg, the woman who helped to put the dead body in front of the Steenwijk's house. In each of these scenarios Anton acts, however timidly or reluctantly, to confront his past, and to integrate the elements of that past into a current and comprehensive understanding. These moments constitute an arc of psycho-moral development in Anton, which is, I think, the theme - or at least the plot-line - of The Assault.

   However well he has written the scenes and developed the plot of The Assault, and I grant that in these regards he has been deft and very successful, Mulisch has still produced a mediocrity in his selection and depiction of a hero. While it is not hard to empathize with Anton, or to pity his initial condition, it is difficult to feel engaged in the progress of a life that is lived so nearly superfluously. Anton is not given to probing the depths of his own psyche –indeed, the scene of him as a vacationing adult with a wife and child, swimming beyond the reef and sandbars, seems to suggest that depth itself is anathema to the author’s theme. What else, we can ask, is he supposed to be engaged with?
   While the insult to his psyche (or soul) and, especially, the manner of its presentation are surely responsible for this estrangement, I think that the philosophical underpinnings of Mulisch’s moral perspective are also, equally and sufficiently responsible. In other words, changing the style alone won’t change the outcome.

   The tepid moralism of rising above partisanship, while still being engaged, seems to be seriously undercut by the very arc of the plot. Anton Steenwijk starts out as a boy already above partisanship, and fully engaged – it is he, alone among his peers at school and even his masters, who holds no grudge against the collaborator’s son! - and look what it gets him! His life thereafter is an on-going challenge to recover from the injury his non-partisanship could not forestall. Anton doesn’t so much transcend his injury as merely recover from its worst effect: the almost complete emotional withdrawal from the wider world and its affairs. So, what is the message?

  The message seems to me, to be a tepid and airy kind of socio-moral optimism: A “two cheers” hurrah for tolerant political engagement. (“Engagement”, intoned with a French accent, was all the rage in the 70’s and 80’s!) To the American mind, I think, any such engagement requires individual moral judgment and, as always, the devil is in the details. Mulisch, and perhaps many or most of our European brothers and sisters, rely more happily on consensus. But his theory of politics seems to be at odds with his literary theory, as a modernist novelist of an individual’s experience. It is revealing, I think, that Anton’s rapprochement with the world at large is not a matter of individual agony, so much as a non-introspective process of gradual enticements! This is a kind of hero Americans will hardly recognize. (And one which, I think, Mulisch hardly believes in! Thus, two cheers, only.)

  Anton is finally restored to a semblance of his former self - although now older and wiser – and able to march with his friends and family members in a grand cause. But this engagement, what does it amount to (for him or to Mulisch), except a bovine acceptance of vulnerability? Mulisch, it seems to me, is at least partially OK with this, since his political faith seems to be in the masses – as exemplified by the marchers in the protest against nuclear proliferation - which mass Anton finally joins with, in spirit and in fact. But, as a writer and a realist, I think he is not so completely convinced. For, marchers of a different ilk – we would now-a-days call them “skinheads” – transect the parade, and though the marchers absorb this insult and move on, he makes it clear, though not emphatically: the threat is ever present. (Interestingly, this parade scene is the least clear, credible and compelling part of an otherwise gripping story.)
  The Assault seems, then, to be a meditation on surviving insults – even insults of the worst kind — with aplomb. Anton learns to broaden his political perspective (a bit) and to be fulfilled (somewhat) by that engagement. But, what of a broader significance has happened? Not much! Everything in this novel is in a minor key, so to speak; everything in moderation -–or less. It is hard to see anything transcendent in this narrative. Personally, and as a matter of critical speculation, I put this down to the discord between Mulisch’s overt political stance and his irrepressible aesthetic sensibility.

   I can see why the didactic intent of the novel, with its moral of subtle and tolerant engagement, was so highly appreciated in the 1980’s, especially in the days of high (nuclear) tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, and widespread fear of another European war. In hindsight, though – and for all its objectivist detachment - it doesn't satisfy realism's demand of a credible resolution of the agonies of a compelling character. Briefly, the hero’s story is (or, at least, becomes in the end) too much like a statistical abstraction - or a moral summation - to be compelling. The result is only two cheers for Mulisch and The Assault.

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