Structure and Narration in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

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This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

The Assault by Harry Mulisch is structured like a Greek tragedy. Apart from the five episodes, it also has a prologue and epilogue, and the author himself has commented on the exodus at the end, and the choir.


(05-04-2014, updated 07-25-2018)  The prologue sets the stage for the action, and it mirrors the main themes of the book. Anton watches a man push a barge forward with a pole, “a man walking backwards to push something forward, while staying in the same place himself” (p.5). This fits perfectly with the way Anton moves through time and history in the course of the novel. In addition, the last part of the prologue is a metaphor for the consequences of the assault:

The motorboats were different. Pitching, their prows would tear the water into a V shape that spread until it reached both sides of the canal. There the water would suddenly begin to lap up and down, even though the boat was already far away. Then the waves bounced back and formed an inverted V, which interfered with the original V, reached the opposite side transformed, and bounced back again — until all across the water a complicated braiding of ripples developed which went on changing for several minutes, then finally smoothed out. (p. 5-6)

As in Greek tragedy, there is unity of time in the action of each episode of The Assault. The first chapter of each episode after 1945 gives an update of Anton’s life since the previous episode.

The following chapters describe the action during the time indicated. In 1952, Anton goes to Haarlem and meets Mrs. Beumer. In 1956, Fake Ploeg Jr. confronts him; in 1966, Anton meets Takes at a funeral and the next day he visits his apartment. In 1981, Anton and Karin Korteweg run into each other during the peace demonstration.

Each of these meetings takes place within twenty-four hours, with the exception of Anton’s encounters with Takes, which take place within thirty-six hours.

As we will see, the classical requirement of unity of time determines how Harry Mulisch manipulates certain historical facts in The Assault.

The type of narration, together with the episode structure, provides a seamless connection between fiction and history.

In the first chapters of each episode, the narrator gives a panoramic view of Anton’s life so far, along with some historically relevant information. The omniscient narrator also puts aspects of Anton’s story into a larger historical perspective in the scenic chapters, combining fact and fiction down to the sentence level: “He was awakened half an hour or an hour later by the shouting that had echoed throughout Europe for years” (p. 40), and “The rumble of the Russian tanks which had rolled into Budapest still echoed within Holland, and nowhere more audibly than around the corner from Anton’s apartment” (p. 82).

Frans De Rover comments on the effect of Harry Mulisch inserting historical facts in this way:

The narrator connects and intertwines this information with fictitious events and characters in a way that gives the reader an illusion of reality and an invitation to identify. This is particularly the case in the scenic parts–the action elements: the (seeming) absence of the narrator and the resulting small (emotional and intellectual) distance between characters and the reader enhance the effect of “authenticity”, of “reality” (3).


  1. Marcel Janssens points out that the last paragraph of the novel functions as an epilogue. Unfortunately, in the translation this last paragraph is not separated from the rest of the text as it is in the original. 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. 81-92.
  2. In an interview in Vrij Nederland, 20 Aug. 1983.
  3. Frans de Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985) p. 76.

How many times can one author fit into a novel? Click here to find out in the next post in this series.

This post was first published on 05-04-2014, on the blog Resident Alien.

Series Navigation<< A Summary of The Assault by Harry MulischThe Five Forms of Time in the Historical Novel The Assault by Harry Mulisch >>

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