The tinkering with time and events, which I addressed in the previous post, leads us to what Mulisch calls “time eternal;” the elements in his writing which put the historical events into a larger, more timeless perspective.
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 Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and learning. Thoth was 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 a writer is a god, a creator. In addition, a historical 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 memories 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 garden 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 large 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 epilog leaves Anton moving along in the crowd, toward the starting point of the demonstration.
As mentioned earlier, Anton is intrigued by sextants, an instrument 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, the Second World War 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 songline “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 prolog, 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).
Mulisch has not only written a war story that connects perfectly with the Dutch collective memory; his ideas about history and time, expressed throughout in metaphors, imagery and myth, ultimately manifest themselves by means of the very structure of the book, making it a historical novel par excellence.
- L. de Groot, Cicero –Nederlands op Internet — Syllabus: Auteursinformatie: Harry Mulisch. online, Internet, May, 2000.
- 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”.
- 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.
- Egyptian Gods (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado) online, Internet, April 2000.
- Ancient Egypt: The Mythology. online, Internet, April 2000.
- Bergen Evans, Dictionary of Mythology (New York: Laurel, 1970).
- Harry Mulisch, Grondslagen van de mythologie van het schrijverschap (Amsterdam: Thoth, 1987).
- For an explanation of Orphism that will elucidate Anton’s dream at the beach, see Kraaijeveld 648-649.
- 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.
- 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.
- For further discussions of the Oedipus myth in The Assault, see De Rover, p. 108-118.
- Kraaijeveld, p. 644.
- See Herbert van Uffelen, “De Aanslag: ein Anschlug auf Die Zukunft von Gestern?”. Tijdschrift voor Nederlands en Afrikaans 1 (1983) : p. 148-161.
- White correctly translates ‘provocasteurs’ as ‘agitators’ (The Assault 165), but unfortunately this does not remind the reader of the Provos of 1966.
- 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.