The Undertaking – Audrey Magee (August 2019)

I was really excited about this book when I read the blurb. It was another hidden gem I found on an infrequent visit to the local library. I couldn’t wait to read it. Once I’d started it I couldn’t wait to get to the end and find out what happened. I found the book incredibly readable and I was fascinated by the World War Two backdrop. At the start of the novel we meet Katharina Spinell working in a bank in Berlin and living with her parents. She decides to marry ex-teacher and current solider Peter Faber as an arrangement. He would get leave to come home and meet his bride and she would be awarded a widow’s pension should he die in the war. The narrative follows their story as they try and find their feet as war progresses.

Despite having learnt and read about World War Two I felt that the German side of the war was not something I came across much. Most films, TV shows and books either focus on the war at home for the Allied Force or center on the politics. The perspective of a war-torn Germany does seem to be missing from the narrative that I have come across. Reading this book I felt Magee choose a refreshing angle for a war-time romance with so many other similar novels on the market.

Having said that, this view of the war is also interesting from a moral perspective. Peter’s suffering as a German solider fighting in horrific conditions for Stalingrad alongside a German family trying to make ends meet in war-torn Germany evoke pity. Both stories are chilling and shine a light on the horrific conditions that existed during World War Two. As the story progresses the question of morality arises. It becomes harder to pity those living under the banner of Nazism. The Spinell’s appear first as downtrodden citizens of a totalitarian and tyrannical regime. Our empathy is evoked by the small amount of soap they have, the scarce food and the bomb shelter they must hide in. This fades as they quickly jump on the opportunity to move in to an apartment formerly belonging to a Jewish family. They have no compunction in leaving their old life behind believing the Jews deserve what is happening to them. How much the Spinell’s know is unclear but they know the Jews have disappeared from Germany after being stripped of their homes.

Meanwhile, the soldiers on the front make clear they wish to be home and become increasingly disillusioned with the war. As they lose limbs, fear for their loved ones and live in constant terror. We cannot imagine their suffering and yet they also engage in theft, murder and rape. Peter encapsulates this idea towards the end of the novel when he questions why he suffers when he is a good man. He has stayed truthful to his wife. He never raped any women. And he fought for his country. But he also espoused Nazi propaganda against communism and supported Dr Reinhart and Mr. Spinell’s search for hidden Jews in Berlin and their murder. This raises questions about morality. Who is a truly good person? What would any of us do to stay alive or put in certain situations?

The book also raises question on what is justifiable and the price people are willing to pay. At the root of this is nationalism. When Katharina’s brother, Johannes, returns traumatized from the war he is given a few weeks break before being returned to the front to fight. On his return Johannes has been in hospital before being sent home practically catatonic. He is unable to go to the toilet, bathe or feed himself. When he gradually comes back into himself he is clearly suffering memory loss. It would be unthinkable to send someone in that condition to war. This is the thinking of both Katharina and her mother. In comparison, the father and his friend Dr Reinhart, clearly a high ranking Nazi official, don’t question the order. To them the price of Johannes’ life is a price they are willing to pay much to Katharina and her mother’s shock.

This is not the only price paid in the novel. Katharina pays her own price in her decision to stay in Berlin when the Allied Forces advance. The result of these actions, her fidelity and promise to her husband to wait for his return, result in the loss of her child and the conception of another through brutalizing rape at the hands of Russian soldiers. This is Katharina’s undertaking. Peter also has his own undertaking. A price that he is not willing to pay. He’s not willing to pay the price of Nazism and Hitler’s actions with his life. He becomes a prisoner of war, surrendering to the Russian force, instead of continuing the fight on the losing German side. On his return at the end of the war there’s another price he is not willing to pay. The parentage of a child who is not his own. A marriage to a wife who is not the woman he remembered.



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