The defeat of the Germans at the battle of Stalingrad in 1943 initiated the German retreat and is considered by many to be the turning point of the Second World War. Understandably then, the battle forms the inspiration for a multitude of works on the Second World War. The subject matter of Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking is not, therefore, unfamiliar. Further complicated by Magee’s (who is Irish) decision to write from the German’s perspective, I did not come to the novel with high expectations. However, Magee’s writing dissolved all apprehension within a few pages. The Undertaking is an outstanding debut.
Having never met, Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell, the novel’s characters, are married by proxy. For Peter, this would result in a ten day honeymoon leave from the warfront and for Katherina, it would secure a widow’s pension should her newly-wed husband be killed. Their marriage is one of convenience, so neither expects the passionate attraction which develops when Peter visits his new wife in Berlin. His leave expired and his wife pregnant, the couple part on Katherina’s promise of fidelity. Peter returns to the front but his wife and unborn child now give him an incentive for his endurance of the immense hardships of war; as his fellow soldier says, “You stare at those pictures of your wife and child, Faber, as if your life depended on them. They give you purpose”. Obstacles, separation, tribulations – The Undertaking seems to have all the makings of a great love story. The novel’s success, however, lies not in the telling of a great love story, nor in the narration of a story of war. In Magee’s strikingly intricate portrayal of human nature, the human element carries this novel.
Despite narrating the novel from a German perspective, Magee does not implicate any one party for the atrocities of the Second World War. Both Peter and Katharina suffer extensively, yet at times their own actions are morally questionable. Katharina is happy to feast upon the Fuhrer’s cake. This is the cake which had been gifted to her by the very man who orders her brother’s return to the front despite the knowledge that he is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Peter spends his nights in Berlin beating Jewish children “when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas for mercy”. Magee writes in such a way that the reader’s experience of these occurrences gives insight only to Peter’s feelings and his frustration; she all but denies the existence of these children, allowing them to appear not as humans but as a mere annoyance to Peter.
It is a great strength of Magee’s style that the reader, though often outraged by Peter’s actions, is unable to detach from him as a character. Yet, while the nature of the reading experience means we are inseparable from the characters, we do not identify with them on an emotional level and are distanced from them. In one sense then, Magee creates empty characters, a blank canvas onto which the reader is projected and thus absorbed into the novel. Her characters encompass all of humanity. A simple exchange between Peter and Katherina concerning the Russians captures the essence of this beautifully:
“We’re not as bad as they are.”
Magee creates a delicate balance between victim and aggressor. The Fabers and Spinells are both. The Undertaking demands not only that we question why, but, more importantly, that we realise the destructive impact of such behaviour – and considering the amount of unrest which exists in the present day, this is immensely relevant. The Undertaking certainly makes for a most rewarding read.