Time Stands Still: The Petrifaction of Anton’s World in The Assault

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This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

The Assault by Harry Mulisch represents clearly two of the author’s recurring themes: petrifaction and isolation. Everyone is alone in his own present. As long as he touches nothing, he is surrounded by the past, while he, in turn, is history to everyone else.


(05-06-2014, updated 07-26-2018)  In The Assault by Harry Mulisch, time comes to a standstill for Anton, and this isolates him from the rest of humanity. Mulisch comments on isolation in time elsewhere:

Space is also always temporal. When I look at the stars, I look at the distant past. Even when I look at the sun, I see her as she was eight minutes ago: she might have extinguished seven minutes ago. When I talk to someone standing a meter away from me, I see him as he was one threehundred-millionth of a second ago, while his words were spoken even longer ago, one threehundred-thirtieth of a second. That is to say: everyone is alone in his own present. As long as he touches nothing, he is surrounded by the past, while he, in turn, is history to everyone else. (1)

To Anton, the moment after the assault has become frozen in time, “eternal, detached […] from all that had come before and all that would follow” (p. 22).

More in general, the hunger winter–when life has literally come to a standstill–has become Anton’s world. There is no food, no water (the pipes in the houses are frozen, as is the canal), no fuel, no transportation, no information, no light. After evening curfew, the family is completely isolated.

This is the past that surrounds Anton, a past characterized by petrifaction.

When he revisits Haarlem in 1952, he notices that “The burned-out truck had been removed” (p. 58), as if it could just as well still have been there, untouched for seven years (2). In fact, for several other characters, time does not seem to have passed either.

The Beumers’ living room has not changed; Beumer himself is senile, unaware of the present; Takes and the other resistance fighters still call one another by their underground names, and Takes keeps war souvenirs in his basement. When Anton tells him that Truus Coster had been held in the police station in Heemstede, which was not heavily guarded, “Anton could feel [that] a plan was [yet] forming in Takes’s head to [attack] police headquarters in Heemstede” (p. 139).

And Anton himself has not changed, at least not to Karin Korteweg, who immediately recognizes the middle-aged man whom she has not seen since he was twelve.

This standstill, or petrifaction, is one of the recurring themes in Harry Mulisch’s novels, and it is supported by stone imagery (3). The name Steenwijk has the element ‘steen’ in it, which is Dutch for ‘stone’. Stones are also connected to the idea of symbols by Mr. Steenwijk, who explains that, in Greek, the two are etymologically related (p. 14-15).

The relation between history and symbols will be discussed later.


  1. Harry Mulisch, Grondslagen van de Mythologie van het Schrijverschap (Amsterdam: Thoth, 1987) p. 11.
  2. See also Yolanda Vanderwal Taylor, A Family Occupation: Children of the War and the Memory of World War II in Dutch Literature of the 1980s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 1997) p. 36.
  3. The word ‘yet’ is not in White’s translation, and he mistakenly uses the word ‘infiltrate’ instead of ‘attack’ or ‘raid’.

Can the past change? Click here to find out in the next post in this series.

This post was first published on 05-06-2014, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault Part 5: Time Stands Still: Petrifaction and Isolation”.

Header image: mine

Series Navigation<< The Five Forms of Time in the Historical Novel The Assault by Harry MulischThe Changing Past: The Assault Is the History of an Incident >>

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