Dutch author Harry Mulisch: arrogant leftist shaped by WWII

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Harry Mulisch, who has died aged 83, was a prolific writer of World War II-inspired books that won him acclaim as one of the greatest Dutch authors -- a title he flaunted to the exasperation of many.

With his tall frame, aquiline profile and smart dress-sense, Mulisch's dandy looks and habit of proclaiming himself the best made him an often derided figure in a country where the credo is to "be normal, that is crazy enough."

"He was a man with a certain grandeur and he knew it. He said: 'I am good and I can't help it'," Wilbert Smulders, a professor of languages at the University of Utrecht told AFP.

"It was not always well received."

Having penned more than 70 novels, essays, poem anthologies and plays, Mulisch never won the Nobel prize for literature despite repeatedly being tipped as a prime candidate.

Mulisch's father, an ex-officer of the Austro-Hungarian empire, worked for the controversial Lippmann-Rosenthal bank in Amsterdam, set up to manage assets taken from Dutch Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

This allowed the young Mulisch and his mother, a German Jew born in Belgium, to escape the Nazi extermination camps.

"He always said -- 'I am the Second World War," fellow author and friend Cees Nooteboom said after Mulisch's death at his home in Amsterdam on Saturday.

His parentage had "a huge impact on him. It was always about the war, the war, and the war. It left an indelible mark on the work and the man himself.

"The question of accountability during the war, of inhumanity are central to his work," noted Marita Mathijsen, literature lecturer at the University of Amsterdam.

Born on July 29, 1927 in Haarlem, west of Amsterdam, Mulisch decided to devote himself fulltime to writing in 1949. He never finished high school.

His first novel, "Archibald Strohalm", was published in 1952.

He received acclaim for "The Stone Bridal Bed" in 1959 and "Case 40/61" - a non-fiction account published in book form in 1961 about the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.

But it was "The Assault" published in 1982 that was Mulisch's popular breakthrough -- about a family that witnesses the murder of a Nazi collaborator outside their front door.

The book was translated into English in 1985 and the film version by the same name won the Oscar two years later for best foreign language movie.

Mulisch's Magnum Opus of over 900 pages was "The Discovery of Heaven," published in 1992. Part adventure thriller, part philosophical thesis, the book tells the story of a boy tasked with returning to heaven the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God.

The book got a good review in the New York Times and sealed Mulisch's arrival on the international scene.

In "Siegfried," his last major novel published in 2001, the author sketches an old couple charged with raising Adolf Hitler's son who later murder him on the Furhrer's orders.

Mulisch was also known as a left-leaning man who once signed one of his books for Cuban leader Fidel Castro "dedicated in admiration."

"He never wanted to buy a house because he thought that was capitalist," said Mathijsen.

Mulisch received many accolades, including the P.C. Hooft, the Netherlands' highest literary prize, was admitted to France's Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and was knighted by the Dutch queen.

His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

© 2010 AFP

1 Comment To This Article

  • Niels posted:

    on 1st November 2010, 01:48:24 - Reply

    I'm quite amazed by this article. He's one of our best writers in The Netherlands, and he's equally liked by those on both sides of the political spectrum. Maybe he was a bit arrogant, but he surely didn't deserve such a negative article.