Time Eternal in The Assault: Events Put in a Larger, Timeless Perspective

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

The tinkering with time and events in The Assault (see the previous post) leads us to what Harry Mulisch calls ‘time eternal‘ — the elements in his writing which put the historical events into a larger, more timeless perspective.

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(05-11-2014, updated 07-26-2018)  In Mulisch’s work, linear, chronological time (which leads inevitably to death) can be conquered, among other things, by deification or mythologization; and by returning to the origins, to the mother, by taking the place of the father (1).

The element of deification is related in part to the metafictional aspects of the novel. Mulisch demonstrates to the reader that a writer has godlike powers.

The motto at the beginning of the book refers to the fact that a writer determines what will be remembered and what will be forgotten. Several instances of mediated narration also indicate the author’s power.

In the second episode–1952–when Anton wants to forget about the war, the narrator does not allow it. “But things don’t vanish all that easily” (p. 58). And the last episode begins with a sentence that teases the reader: “And then … and then … and then … time passes” (p. 151).

The powers of the author are also demonstrated when characters who are no longer needed are discarded without further ado; this is one of Mulisch’s trademarks (2). For instance, when Anton and Saskia get married, “His uncle was not there. A senseless auto accident had put an end to his life” (p. 100).

The godlike aspects of the author are already hinted at in the beginning of the first episode (3). The narrator mentions that Anton’s father is a clerk at the district court, which reminds us of the Egyptian god Thoth, god of writing and learning,but also the god of the underworld,

where he served as a clerk who recorded the judgments on the souls of the dead. Alternatively, it was Thoth himself who weighed the hearts of the dead against the feather of Truth in the Hall of the Two Truths (4).

Anton’s mother has hair “coiled over her ears like two ammonite shells” (p. 10). The Egyptian god Amon was one of the primordial gods of creation, and the word ‘amon’ means ‘what is hidden’ (5). He was often depicted as having a human body with a ram’s head and large curving horns (6).

So the writer as a god, a creator. In addition, a historical fiction writer attempts to bring the past back to life, In this sense, a writer is like Orpheus, who tried to bring back his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. Mulisch interprets the Orpheus myth as follows:

It is about the conversion of the temporal into the spatial–that is to say: the miraculous and the impossible, the triumph over death and thus over time itself, as takes place with writing. That is why Orpheus is traditionally our patron saint. (7)

When Anton visits Takes’s home, they go into the basement, where the old resistance fighter keeps his memorabilia of Truus and the War. Anton notices the kiss that Truus had placed on the map with her lipstick, and “he looked again at the mouth rising from the North Sea. It was as if the rest of her face was under water” (p. 137).

Orphic elements abound in The Assault, but it would go beyond the purpose of this analysis to discuss them all at length (8).

Mulisch’s stories are taken to a mythological level not so much through the characters, but through the events. Elsewhere he writes:

I once wrote a story, “Paralipomena Orphica” (9), in which the protagonist goes to a museum to pick up a skull of someone who had been sentenced to death.  But the bridge is open, so he takes a boat across the river Amstel to that museum. At that moment I think: Hades (10).

It is in this light that the Oedipal elements in The Assault should be seen. It is not so much that Anton is like Oedipus, but that there are certain events that remind us of the Oedipus myth. Again, it goes beyond the scope of this study to discuss this aspect of the novel at length (11). However, its presence is worth mentioning in relation to time and structure of the novel. Ruud Kraaijeveld explains Mulisch’s view of the Oedipus myth:

He sees the return to the mother and replacing the father from the perspective of time. Oedipus triumphs over progressing time by his return. With this interpretation, Mulisch places the myth within his themes of death and time. Oedipus’s actions are aimed at overcoming time (and death): by taking his father’s place, he can recreate himself. This way, time is no longer linear but circular: life constantly begins anew (12).

Anton’s life certainly comes full circle in the last episode.

He visits the street where his house used to be, and Truus Coster’s grave, where the narrator mentions that “A man was watering with a hose” (p. 161). All meaningful signs of the event that took place in January 1945 have been removed. The gravel has been raked and a garden hose is just a hose again.

Anton has a toothache and his second wife suggests that he place a clove in his painful molar, like his mother did on the evening of the assault. He visits his dentist–the blustering student of 1952–who forces him to join the demonstration against nuclear missiles, and thus against a different type of fascism (13).

Anton’s son Peter is twelve–as old as Anton was in January of 1945.

Anton walks in the stream of humanity that is slowly moving in an enormous circle though Amsterdam and he is afraid what might happen if violence is provoked in such a mass of people (14). The American embassy reminds him briefly of the German department that used to be housed in the same villa during the war.

He meets his daughter Saskia and her boyfriend Bastiaan, who are squatters–the resistance fighters of the 1980s. Sandra is about to give life to yet another generation.

While Anton talks to Karin Korteweg, a group of skinheads cuts across the stream of people, wearing iron plates on their heels, exactly like Ploeg was wearing when he was liquidated.

The epilogue leaves Anton moving along in the crowd, toward the starting point of the demonstration.

As mentioned earlier, Anton is intrigued by sextants, instruments used for navigation at sea. The sun or another known star is reflected by a mirror onto a point on the horizon to determine one’s position in space and time. In a similar way, World War Two reflects on the events of the following decades. One cannot understand postwar history without it.

Although he wants to forget about that evening in January 1945, Anton sees everything in the light of the assault. Elements of the event are mirrored throughout the novel, but especially in the final episode. Some have been mentioned before: the garden hose, the clove, the song line “Red roses for a blue lady,” the iron plates on Ploeg’s boots.

The song line “Thanks for the memory” (p. 61) is mirrored by a sign in the demonstration. The most important instance of mirroring, however, is the image of the motorboat plowing through the water as described in the prologue, creating such a pattern of ripples that Anton could no longer follow it. It is the specular counterpart to the whole novel, and this becomes clear in the last pages.

Karin helps Anton with the final pieces of the puzzle, but knowing why Ploeg was dragged in front of his house instead of the Aarts’s only makes the issue of guilt and responsibility more complicated, so complicated that Anton gives up trying to figure it out (15).

With The Assault, Harry Mulisch has not only written a World War Two novel that connects perfectly with the Dutch collective memory; his ideas about history and time, expressed throughout in metaphor, imagery and myth, ultimately manifest themselves by means of the very structure of the book, making it a historical novel par excellence.

  1. L. de Groot, Cicero –Nederlands op Internet — Syllabus: Auteursinformatie: Harry Mulisch. online, Internet, May, 2000.
  2. See Frans de Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985) p. 107, who mentions as the most poignant example the short story “De sprong der paarden en de zoete zee”.
  3. See De Rover, and Ruud Kraaijeveld, “Het raadsel van de tijd en de dood: over het werk van Harry Mulisch”. Ons Erfdeel 5 (nov-dec 1987) 642-651.
  4. Egyptian Gods (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado) online, Internet, April 2000.
  5. Ancient Egypt: The Mythology. online, Internet, April 2000.
  6. Bergen Evans, Dictionary of Mythology (New York: Laurel, 1970).
  7. Harry Mulisch, Grondslagen van de mythologie van het schrijverschap (Amsterdam: Thoth, 1987).
  8. For an explanation of Orphism that will elucidate Anton’s dream at the beach, see Kraaijeveld 648-649.
  9. I translated it in order to qualify as a translator for the NLPVF in 2001. If it hasn’t been translated by anyone else in the meantime, I can send it to anyone who is interested.
  10. Mulisch in an interview with De Rver, included in Marita Mathijsen (ed.), Harry Mulisch: De mythische formule: Dertig gesprekken 1951-1981 (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1981) p. 240.
  11. For further discussions of the Oedipus myth in The Assault, see De Rover, p. 108-118.
  12. Kraaijeveld, p. 644.
  13. See Herbert van Uffelen, “De Aanslag: ein Anschlug auf Die Zukunft von Gestern?”. Tijdschrift voor Nederlands en Afrikaans 1 (1983) : p. 148-161.
  14. White correctly translates ‘provocasteurs’ as ‘agitators’ (The Assault 165), but unfortunately this does not remind the reader of the Provos of 1966.
  15. See Marcel Janssens “The Prolog in Mulisch’s 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. 81-82.

Header image: Orpheus in the Underworld. Brueghel, Jan the Elder, 1594



This post was first published on 05-12-2014, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 10: Time Eternal“.

Series Navigation<< Familiar Imagery from Dutch History, Culture and Politics in The Assault

4 thoughts on “Time Eternal in The Assault: Events Put in a Larger, Timeless Perspective

  1. Not speaking Dutch I have of course never read the Dutch version of the book by Harry Mulisch known as The Assault. (I think that it should have been titled The Assassination in englsh.)
    Towards the end of the book, in the eglsih language version, Anton is doing a puzzle in which he needs to write a 6 letter word which is the Sun God Ra’s vague definition of ruins. He can not think of the answer. I think that it is on the second to the last page we comes up with the answer, ravage.
    How many liberties did the translator take when writing this in english?
    Surely Mulisch had a purpose in including this in his book. I can not figure out what it is though. Could the translation have distorted his intent?
    Maybe I just need to ponder the riddle longer.

    1. Hi Curt, there is also nothing in the English translation that suggests that Ploeg is anything other than a collaborator cop who had to be stopped from killing more people. As for the title being The Assasination, no, that would be a bad idea, because it’s about an assault, not just on Ploeg, but on the country, on everyone who lived through the occupation, then and still. Yes, ravage is not an often used word in English, as a noun at least. What is meant is damage, mess, ruin, like the damage done during the war.

  2. I guess we will have to agree to disagree about Ploeg being a double agent.
    His son figured out after the war that his father was a double agent and followed in his footsteps.
    Your interpretation is based on common sense expirience. Most normal people would maintain the pósition that you hold. You are reading what is written rather than reading between the lines.
    A normal person would assume that when Anton meets Fake Ploeg Jr. in 1956 that Fake is being on the level with Anton when he talks about his life.
    But there is a telling clue, a freudian slip to be percise, during his time in Anton’s apartment. That is when he throws the rock at the mirror. if Ploeg was really the fanatical anti communist that he was pretending to be he would not have thrown the rock at the mirror. He broke the mirror because he could not stand the image of himself that world was allowed to see. at that heated moment he was extremely frustrated that he could not tell Aanton the truth about his father or about himself because that would put the lives of true visionaries at risk.
    The discipline of Fake was rewarded. The intellegence gathering operation that he was part of spread internationally.
    The discipline of Harry Mulisch was rewarded as well. Many people have written books claiming to be true that are really works of fiction. Harry Mulisch is the first to write a work of fiction that is much more true than that witch is reported on FOX, CNN, or BBC. Because of his efforts one Alien remained with the world when all the others had given up and left. Sadly one will probably not be enough In the end everything will likely be forgotten. At ths point it seems that a camel has a better chance to pass through the eye of a needle than humanity has of surviving the 21st century.
    I must say that I was not aware that ravage could be used as a noun. I still wonder how this part of book was wrttien in Dutch though as the Dutch translations of the word ravage that I just looked up do not have 6 letters.
    Understanding this clue could lead to the discovery of heaven.

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