Yes, another book review. I shall resume mocking myself and my upbringing shortly, have no fear!
By Audrey Magee
Atlantic Books, £12.99 hardcover, £8.99 e-book
Admirable and absorbing, The Undertaking is a debut novel that takes your hand and doesn’t let it go. Told almost entirely in dialogue, with sparing but effective descriptive passages, it’s the story of a German couple married by proxy who meet, discover mutual attraction, and then are separated by war.
At the start of the novel Peter Faber, a foot soldier, is so desperate to leave the grim realities of the Russian front that he marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he’s never met, in order to be eligible for honeymoon leave. For her part, she has chosen him from a selection of suitable – ie, suitably Aryan – men, because if nothing else, his almost certain death in battle will ensure her a widow’s pension.
It’s immediately obvious that neither of these opportunistic, grasping central characters is very admirable, yet Magee’s skill is that she keeps us hooked by giving their often repellent behaviour a solid and believable emotional context. So, Katharina becomes deeply engrossed in the machinations of Nazi high-heid-yins because she is manipulated by her parents, who are good at laying on guilt. They, in turn, are utterly enchanted by – and desperate for – the gifts and favours bestowed by their masters, not least the abundance of high quality food in a time of deprivation. Mr Spinell’s insistence on doing what he’s told verges on a caricature, but the results are far from comical.
Peter readily falls under his father-in-law’s spell during his brief time back in Berlin, and his immediate absorption of the Nazi ethos influences his behaviour long after his return to the Russian front. He keeps going by worshiping Katharina and the child she’s now carrying, making her a symbol of all he’s fighting for, a bright beacon of womanhood who makes all suffering worthwhile.
Without being gauche enough to spell it out, the novel evokes comparisons with current events. The Spinell family’s resentment at the “haves” is basic, but groundless, jealousy. When they move into a vast, luxurious flat from which a Jewish family has been expelled, they feel it is their birthright as good Germans. Why shouldn’t we have nice things, they insist, despite the lack of evidence that they have accomplished much with their lives – apart from toadying to the Nazis.
The scenes on the front, especially at Stalingrad, are brutal and violent, and Magee’s subtle touch invests them with power. Life on the Eastern Front is horrific. German soldiers cling to life in extreme circumstances, battling not only the enemy, but the elements and, ultimately, Germany’s decision to write them off as a lost cause. In this environment corpses – even when they’re friends – are instantly stripped of anything valuable or useful. When a young Russian woman is found cowering in a barn the men casually ask, “Who’ll go first this time.” These are chilling demonstrations of the way that war dehumanizes soldiers and civilians alike, and a potent reminder of how ostensibly decent men can transgress — and come to find it second nature.
Magee uses echoing to full advantage to demonstrate that not much separates those of us at home from those in the battlefields. Soliders sweep into villages and claim all the housing and food for themselves, just as the Spinells and others like them claim the flats and belongings of Jewish families as their due. Germans rape Russian women and the Russians retaliate when they invade Berlin. German families cower in bomb shelters praying they’ll be overlooked by the shells, while their sons and brothers do the same in far grimmer surroundings on the Eastern Front.
Deceptively simple, The Undertaking is bound to leave readers mulling their own morals, asking: What might I do if pushed to extremes?