Assault by Harry Mulisch

Assault by Harry Mulisch

Author: Harry Mulisch
View book: Assault

It is the winter of 1945, a time when World War II is coming to an end and occupied Holland is surrounded by darkness. In these final days, a Nazi collaborator known for his heartlessness meets his demise while riding his bicycle home. This assassination sets off a chain reaction of events, with the Germans responding by burning down the home of an innocent family. Amidst the destruction, only twelve-year-old Anton manages to survive.

Inspired by true events, The Assault explores the intricate consequences that unfold in Anton’s life following this gruesome incident. Determined to erase the painful memories, he chooses to pursue a life of normalcy – a safe marriage, a successful career, and an existence marked by apathy. However, the past refuses to be forgotten, as memories resurface in relentless waves and chance encounters with those connected to the assassination and its aftermath. Little by little, Anton is forced to uncover the truth of what transpired on that fateful night in 1945, and more importantly, why.

The Assault: The Illusion of Free Will and the Power of External Influences

It is often disheartening to think about the untold stories that remain hidden simply because they have not been discovered. Some argue that these forgotten footnotes in history are overshadowed by larger external forces. This philosophical concept, known as determinism, has been explored by notable literary movements like transcendentalism. In the novel “The Assault” by Harry Mulisch, this idea takes a contemporary approach. The story follows the life of Anton Steenwijk, a boy living in the aftermath of World War II in Europe, as he grows into adulthood. While changes are expected in Anton’s life, the lasting effects of the war continuously shape his journey.

Mulisch artfully uses symbolic objects, interactions, and key moments to highlight how individual choices are often overridden by external forces. In one instance, the Steenwijk family prepares to play a board game but chooses not to. This decision foreshadows a lack of control in achieving their own objectives. Instead of free will, the consequences of World War II ultimately determine their fate. Another powerful moment occurs when Anton touches a dice in his pocket after the death of his family. This symbolizes the illusion of control individuals may have while being ultimately governed by randomness.

Additionally, sailboats serve as a metaphor for Anton’s individual choices. Like boats pushed by invisible winds, his choices are influenced and guided by external forces. Furthermore, a map covered with battle lines reminds Anton that individual actions often become insignificant in the grand scheme of events, such as World War II. Even in his encounters with others, Anton’s ability to shape his destiny seems unfair when compared to those who have suffered similar tragedies.

In matters of love, Anton allows chance to dictate his fate, emphasizing Mulisch’s critique of free will. Ultimately, the novel underscores the insignificance of individual choices in the face of external influences. No matter how intricate or well-intentioned, individual choices hold no sway against the magnitude of significant events. Anton becomes embedded and affected by these events, unable to leave a lasting impact on the world.

As “The Assault” explores the theme of the assault on individual choice by external factors, it challenges the idea that personal agency determines one’s fate. Instead, it suggests that larger events ultimately shape our lives and leave us with the illusion of free will.

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