The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
Published by Grove Press
Publication date: August 19th 2014
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of novels set in Berlin in the midst of World War II. Novels that document the trampling of many people’s lives into oblivion. Author Audrey Magee does not go the route of the victim or the innocent bystander. Instead, in her novel The Undertaking we meet Peter Faber, a German soldier stationed on the Russian front who decides to take advantage of a Reich-sponsored plan wherein he can get a week of leave for a ‘honeymoon’ if he marries a German girl. Based on photos he chooses the lovely Katharina and shortly after the novel’s opening arrives at her parents’ home in Berlin, filthy and ridden with lice, desperate to be away from the front, to have food and the comfort of a lovely girl. That somehow he and Katharina discover love in the time they have together and that her father introduces him to a man who extends Peter’s leave so he can help find and evict Jews from their homes, makes it clear to him that he doing the right thing with his life. For Katharina, marrying a soldier will provide her with respect, security and a pension if he is killed. These are the minds of the characters chronicled in The Undertaking.
Magee relates Katharina’s life in Berlin and Peter’s in Russia with a factual air, but the quiet flatness of her prose in no way diminishes its impact. Instead, it inflames it. Katharina and her parents gloat over the fact that they have been given a beautiful apartment stolen from a Jewish family. They paw over the belongings and try on the clothes left behind. Her father knows exactly how these things have come to be theirs but Katharina does not and does not want to. She only sees a fur coat, plenty of food and a maid. At the same time Peter has been in Russia for almost 3 years and every victory is merely reclaiming what is rightfully theirs from a people who are inferior. Such a people deserve to be dominated. Even in fiction these are not easy things to read of without a reaction.
For the first half of The Undertaking the righteous entitlement of the characters infuriates. It isn’t until the second half that Magee steps away from Katharina’s life and the chapters settle into Russia in the winter of 1942 where, for Peter and his fellow soldiers, there is no more victory, just the horrors of war. When we do return to Katharina it is to see that the only thing colder than the snows of Stalingrad are the attitudes of the Nazi party members living the high life. Peter has been written off as dead and in order to continue in that life, she must move on.
She mentioned her father instead of her husband, and they liked that, liked her acceptance that she was a daughter again, no longer a wife, all of them pleased that she no longer hankered after one of the Stalingrad soldiers, the men best forgotten.
Magee does not rewrite history so there are no surprises in the outcome of The Undertaking. What is surprising is how she manages to put so much emotion into the reader without much of it on the page. The novel is staged such that it’s not possible to read without responding. It is easy to give into vitriol and a desire for vengeance and yet, what about compassion? There is no direction given in the prose as to where to go; it’s left solely to the reader. In this way, Magee achieves an extraordinary effect—the ability to bring about conflicted feelings to situations that seem to be straightforward, but are more complicated. That she does so with simplicity is remarkable and makes The Undertaking a powerful novel worth contemplation.