Ashes

Nicholas Spice

‘Il Figlio dell’Uomo’, ‘The Son of Man’, an essay by Natalia Ginzburg written in 1946 for the paper Unita, begins: ‘There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by.’ Thirty-six years went by and in 1982, in Holland, Harry Mulisch published De Aanslag, a novel in which Anton Steenwijk, aged 12, watches his family home, the house he has grown up in, reduced, in a matter of minutes, to rubble, by the action of a couple of German grenades and a flamethrower. Standing around in the dark and the cold, ‘laughing and talking’, members of the Grüne Polizei warm themselves at the fire that is consuming Anton’s world, where only a moment earlier, quiet and secure, he had been playing ludo with his mother and brother before going up to bed. As the house collapses ‘under a fountain of sparks as high as a tower’, Anton hears a burst of machine-gun fire. He never sees his mother and father and brother again.

The Germans shoot Mr and Mrs Steenwijk and their son Peter and burn down their house, because Fake Ploeg, chief inspector of the Haarlem police, has been found dead outside their front door. The Germans also shoot 29 Communists. It is the Communists who have assassinated Ploeg, and the body originally lay outside the Kortewegs’, the house next door, but Mr Korteweg and his daughter crept out and moved it before the police and soldiers arrived.

In Natalia Ginzburg’s novel All Our Yesterdays, first published in Italy in 1952, the Germans shoot Cenzo Rena for much the same reason as they shoot the Steenwijks in The Assault. A German soldier has been found dead in a stream outside the village of Borgo San Costanzo where Cenzo Rena lives, and hostages have been taken. Cenzo Rena thinks that if he says he killed the soldier, the hostages will be set free. His sacrifice is fruitless:

The Germans had freed the hostages they had taken that day but then during the night they had come back and taken some more, two sons of the dressmaker’s and a sister of La Maschiona’s seducer and a shepherd boy of 14 years old, and they had taken them into the mayor’s stable and had poured tins of petrol over the stable and set fire to it ...

  The mayor’s stable was now a heap of ashes, and you still seemed to hear the lowing of the cows and the shrieks of the shepherd boy calling to his mother. No one could understand why the Germans should have burnt down the stable with the cows and the people inside, but perhaps it was only because they had some petrol to throw away.

Human brutality can be casual, but it is the nonchalance of fate that makes pain hardest to bear. The cruelty of Cordelia’s death is completed by the knowledge that it might have been averted. If there had been no messenger to arrive too late, no possibility of reprieve or grounds for sudden hope, the agony would have been somehow less. Inevitability is a source of consolation. To say ‘it had to happen’ is already to begin to acquiesce. Fate is indifferent to such refinements, as Ginzburg and Mulisch know: they place the tragedies they imagine tantalisingly close to the end of the war. Shortly after Cenzo Rena and the hostages are executed, the British arrive in San Costanzo. Anton Steenwijk’s family is destroyed when ‘almost all of Europe had been liberated and was rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the war.’

Natalia Ginzburg doesn’t comment on the play of chance across the destinies of her characters. She simply notes it: how this Jew managed to escape and that one didn’t, how, during a search in a monastery, two are seized ‘running up into the granary’, while two others escape ‘by jumping down from the garden wall’. There is an element of farce in all this hiding and running about, an incongruity which is funny, where laughter is a last resort from horror, a way of rising above it and regaining poise. While the Germans are searching the monastery, Franz, a minor character who is a Jew, hides all night in a cupboard ‘with a big plaster Madonna looking at him’. He starts to pray to the Madonna to save him:

Then all at once he had wanted to laugh at the thought that he, Franz, was all dressed up as a monk and was praying to the Madonna. He had wanted so much to laugh that he had had to cover his mouth with both hands in order not to be heard. And then, little by little, his fear had almost left him.

For many people, the story which has come to represent all such stories is the story of Anne Frank, whose ordeal in hiding in Amsterdam was mocked by a fate that decreed she should be discovered and transported within a few months of liberation. Harry Mulisch treats the plight of the Dutch Jews, and of Jews everywhere at that time, with his own kind of delicate irony, giving the matter a crucial structural importance for his story, but bringing it to the surface only once. This single mention of it is like a chink in a dike: through it the whole unspeakable history floods in. Or again, it is like a tiny window, through which for one short moment we are allowed to peep down upon a vast panorama of brutality and blood.

In one sense, which it would be unfair to disclose to anyone who has not read this book, The Assault takes the Jewish Holocaust as its starting-point. In another, perhaps deeper sense, it grows out of a fascination with chance. Speaking at a party held recently in London to launch his novel, Mulisch referred to the shooting of Fake Ploeg and its immediate consequence as ‘this accident’. He had meant to say ‘incident’ and quickly corrected himself, but the slip was revealing and quite in keeping with the idea from which he said the book originally grew, an idea which came to him in a kind of vision – a vivid mental picture of four detached houses on the side of a canal. Within this image Mulisch discovered the essential elements of his plot and a succinct summary of his most abstract as well as his most domestic themes. Four houses, containing four separate family destinies, and representing four equal chances in the game of life.

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