History Changes, Then Solidifies in Historical Fiction, As in The Assault

The Assault, De aanslag, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, Harry Mulisch's The Assault, history and time in Harry Mulisch's The Assault, historical novels, historical fiction, history,
This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

To Harry Mulisch, history is a matter of selection (what is remembered, recorded and by whom) and reduction (what is deemed worth preserving). Ultimately, what remains of history — what makes it permanent — is historical fiction.

The Assault, De aanslag, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, Harry Mulisch's The Assault, history and time in Harry Mulisch's The Assault, historical novels, historical fiction, history,(05-10-2014, updated 07-26-2018) In the last post we saw how Harry Mulisch addresses the fact that historical events, as well as events on a personal level, are determined by both causality and sheer coincidence.

History is also a matter of selection and reduction.

Anton is twelve when the assault takes place and he notices things a twelve-year-old boy would notice: when he and his parents are taken outside, Anton is shoved into a car, where he sits, amazed at the technology:

Vaguely he made out the steering wheel and the control panels. In an airplane there would be many more panels. In a Lockheed Electra, for instance, there were at least fifteen, and two steering wheels. (p. 27)

And later, when he is in a cell with Truus Coster, he pays more attention to her closeness and the way her breast feels than to what she has to say. Of course he is in shock, and some things are forgotten or pushed into his subconscious.

For instance, Anton only vaguely remembers a quarrel when Takes points out to him that Anton and his family might have had time to drag Ploeg’s body inside to avoid German retaliations. The fact is that there might very well have been time to drag Ploeg inside if Anton and his mother had not quarreled with Peter and if Anton had not thrown away the keys.

When Takes asks Anton if Truus said anything about him, Anton claims that he does not remember. He probably really does not remember, and then he explains that:

I was only twelve. I can’t even remember my own father’s voice. Our house had just been set on fire; my parents, my brother had disappeared. I was in shock. I was hungry, sitting in a dark cell under a police station. (p. 139)

But of course, the reader wonders if maybe Anton has also forgotten because he does not want to share Truus with Takes.

Interpretation of the facts varies from person to person. In 1952, Mrs. Beumer tells Anton that she saw Peter approach Ploeg and she assumes he was trying to help him, while in fact he might have dragged the body in front of her house if he had had the chance. But in her case ignorance is bliss, and as far as she is concerned, Anton’s brother will go down in history as “that darling Peter”.

Harry Mulisch is acutely aware of his own selectivity when writing about history. He once wrote:

The writer looks out over the mountain range of his life, his city, his time, and feels his responsibility–a staff in his hands. He decides what will be forgotten and what will be salvaged in the valley, where it takes place forever. (1)

The motto of the book, “By then day had broken everywhere, but here it was still night–no, more than night,” is taken from a letter by Pliny the younger, eyewitness to the eruption of the Vesuvius over Pompeii in 79 CE, and addressed to the Roman historian Tacitus. Pliny ends his letter as follows:

I have mentioned everything I heard with my own ears, indeed, what I heard immediately after the disaster, because it is when one hears everything almost exactly how it really happened. Now you may take from it what is most important (2). Because it makes a difference whether one writes a letter or a history, or whether one writes for a friend or for the public. (3)

Even though the quote is from a letter to a Roman historian, Mulisch especially believes in the power of historical fiction as opposed to history. In Westminster Abbey, where he first meets Saskia, Anton is struck by the meaninglessness of the actual remains of six centuries of England’s finest:

Everywhere, on the pavement, in the walls, and on the pillars, were sculptures and inscriptions. In the chapels, statues and tombstones stood just as if they were on display at a [second rate] furniture auction. (p. 98) (4)

It is only in literature that the meaning of history endures, “Just as the real truth about the kings all around him could be found only in Shakespeare’s plays” (p. 99). Elsewhere, Mulisch has remarked:

Only the books remain, not reality. Just think of the nineteenth century; what kind of memories are we left with? Nothing. But the books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal–to us, those are the nineteenth century (5).

At the same time, Mulisch feels ambivalent about this notion that what remains of history is historical fiction. He pointed out in an interview that the structure of The Assault expresses a moral judgement about the way people deal with history:

In the five scenes of the book, you see how fast the war becomes smaller, how quickly everything is forgotten. I find that immoral […] If you’re a decent person, you’ll remember all the misery, so you can’t ever be completely happy again (6).

Harry Mulisch demonstrates in The Assault how the passage of time reduces history to symbols, symbols that are understood by fewer and fewer people.The Greek sentence Peter translates as a homework assignment describes the sounds of a war, but Peter remains unimpressed and his father only values its literary quality.

What is left of ancient history is language, and even that language often becomes meaningless.

If the narrator did not explain the quibbling between Peter and Anton at the table before the assault, it would be incomprehensible to readers who didn’t experience the War. Words disappear, such as ‘Adolf”, and others spring up, making translation difficult. The word ‘fascism’ cannot even be translated into the language of its roots:

“[Fight] fascists with fascism,” Anton said. “You can’t put it into Latin. Fasces means bundle of [arrows]. ‘A bundle of [arrows] against a bundle of [arrows]’ — it doesn’t work” (p. 142) (7).

Other pieces of language have different meanings to different people. Anton notices the lines of songs–“Thanks for the memory” and “It was a hard day’s night” (8), which trigger memories in him while going unnoticed by others. And the poem by the resistance fighter and journalist Van Randwijk is used by De Graaff in a way that seems inappropriate to others:

“Do you know these verses of Sjoerd’s?” asked De Graaff, and raising a finger, he declaimed:
“When to the will of tyrants
A nation’s head is bowed,
It loses more than life and goods–
Its very light goes out.”
“Amazing, the uses of poetry, to justify the bombing of villages with napalm,” said the man with the mustache (p. 105-106).

Events become language, symbols, representations of reality, but it is only through these representations of reality that we can recall past events. For instance, Takes has a map of Europe, “showing offensives advancing from Russia and France toward Berlin, where they met” (p. 137).

Possibly the best example of the conversion of history to symbols, before being forgotten altogether, can be found in the four houses along the canal, where the assault takes place.

On the first page of the prologue, the names of the houses are mentioned, in italics, set apart from the rest of the text [though not in the translation, unfortunately]. Of course, the names are already symbols for the houses.

Then, in 1966, when Takes asks Anton why the Kortewegs did not move Ploeg to the Aarts’ house, he draws four lines in the gravel. These lines are explicitly shown, set apart from the rest of the text, like the names of the houses are in the prologue. The houses have now been reduced to some lines in the gravel (116).

And finally, when Anton visits Haarlem with Sandra in 1978, he cannot even match all the houses with their former names. After visiting the street of his youth, Anton and Sandra go to the cemetery where Truus Coster is buried and where the graves are “surrounded by immaculately raked gravel” (p. 161). All the memories have been removed; only the graves remain, meaningless artifacts, as those in Westminster Abbey.

History is not just reduced to symbols. As we have seen before, Mulisch believes quite specifically that what remains of history is fiction.

He gives his realistic story a deliberate fictional twist every now and then, not only to remind the reader that he is reading fiction, but also to demonstrate the process of history changing to fiction. The very first sentence of The Assault reads:

Far, far [away in] (9) the Second World War, a certain Anton Steenwijk lived with his parents and his brother on the outskirts of Haarlem (p. 3).

Not only does this sentence immediately indicate the attempt to measure time as you would a geographical distance (‘far, far away’ instead of ‘long, long ago’), it is also a typical fairy tale beginning (10).

In the second episode, when Anton visits the Beumers, he reminds Mrs. Beumer that her husband used to read The Three Musketeers to him, a novel in which history is merely background for an exciting adventure story.

In 1966, when Takes tells Anton how Truus was shot in the back by the dying Ploeg as she rode off, Anton asks,

“And then?”
“And then–and then–and then . . . ” said Takes, taking some odd dance steps. “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after” (p. 144) (11).

And finally, “With the anxious, yet relieved [feeling] (12) of a writer who has reached the last chapter of his book” (p. 175), Anton asks Karin to fill in the last remaining gaps in the story of the assault, suggesting that his history is becoming historical fiction even as it unfolds.


  1. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen: Zelfportret (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1961) p. 87.
  2. Italics are mine.
  3. See Frans de Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985)  p. 73-74.
  4. White incorrectly translates ‘tweederangs’ as ‘secondhand’.
  5. Interview in De Tijd 26-11-1982, qtd. in De Rover, p. 90.
  6. In an interview in NRC Handelsblad 8-10-82, qtd. in De Rover, p. 99.
  7. ‘Fight’ is my addition. White translates ‘bijlbundel’ as a ‘bundel of twigs’, apparently confusing ‘fascist’ with ‘faggot’.
  8. In the original, the songlines are printed in italics, on separate lines, which makes them stand out from the rest of the text.
  9. White translates “Ver, ver weg in de tweede wereldoorlog” as “Far, far back during the Second World War”, butchering what would otherwise be one of those famous first lines.
  10. See also Marcel Janssens, “The Prolog in Mulisch’ Aanslag: A Novel in a Nutshell.” The Berkeley Conference on Dutch Literature 1987: New Perspectives on the Modern Period. Ed. by Johan P. Snapper and Thomas F. Shannon. (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1989)  p. 89.
  11. In Dutch, Takes’s reply is “en toen–en toen– en toen- […] kwam er een olifant met een grote snuit, en die blies het verhaaltje uit” (p. 199). This little rhyme translates approximately as “and then […] an elephant came and blew out the story.” It is a teasing coda to a bedtime story that does not have a close English equivalent, often leaving children with lots of questions.
  12. White inexplicably translates ‘gesteldheid’ with ‘haste’.

Click here to read the next post in this series about The Assault (De aanslag) by Harry Mulisch.

This post was first published on 05-10-2014, updated 07-26-2018, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 8: Selection and Reduction”.

Series Navigation<< Causality and Coincidence in History, Historical Fiction and in The AssaultFamiliar Imagery from Dutch History, Culture and Politics in The Assault >>

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.