‘The Undertaking’ by Audrey Magee

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‘Why did you marry?’ she said.

‘I wanted leave. And you?’

‘My mother said it would be a good idea. A bit of security, I suppose. The title of wife. Other girls are doing it’.

The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, Pg.14

The Undertaking, Magee’s debut novel, tells the tale of Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier fighting on the Eastern front in 1941, and Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met but decides to marry in order to gain a couple of weeks leave. This is very much a marriage of convenience organised by the many marriage bureau’s set up by the Nazis, yet, when they finally meet in Berlin, there is a surprising physical attraction that blossoms between them. However, not everyone is convinced by this arrangement. When Peter visits his parents, a train ride away from Berlin, with wife in tow, his father berates him for his stupidity and naivety:

It’s a stunt, Peter’, he said. ‘A Nazi breeding stunt’.

‘It’s a deal, Father. Nothing more. And it’s worked out. You’ll really like her’.

The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, Pg.32

Whilst on leave, Katharina’s father introduces Peter to Doctor Weinart, a powerful figure within the Nazi party. Although much of Doctor Weinart’s business, and Mr Spinell’s involvement, seem shrouded in mystery, it becomes clear that they are involved with the rounding up of Jews within the capital. Granted an extra week of leave, Peter joins them on their nightly errands, his only concern not being able to spend time with his wife.

‘The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars. He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas for mercy.

     Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm. On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman. Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.

     ‘I need you, Katharina”.

The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, Pg.35

Magee’s extensive use of dialogue and stunted descriptions made it difficult for me to really get into the novel. It’s certainly not one to be enjoyed – the subject matter is horrific and is made more so by hindsight. Although Magee doesn’t focus on or directly describe the antisemitic, anti-communist and anti-Russian ethos of the Nazi Party, which was widely disseminated across Germany, subtle hints, like the quote above, allows us to fill in the gaps. Perhaps it is because we now know the full extent of the Jewish genocide under Nazi dictatorship, that Peter’s detachment from his actions seem unforgivable. However, Magee never allows the persecuted a voice in The Undertaking.

She also refuses to turn her leading protagonists into individuals with a conscience. Instead they are active participants in the Nazi regime, both accepting as much as they can get. For example, Katharina’s family are offered a bigger, nicer apartment by Doctor Weinart that was recently occupied by Jews. Katharina doesn’t think about the implications of this, nor does she think about where the family may have gone. All she can think about is their good fortune and rising status in this new Germany. When Peter returns to the Eastern front, to his familiar battalion, he comes back brainwashed by Nazi ideology:

‘You speak Russian’.

‘So what? Weiss speaks French. What does that make him?’

‘I’m only concerned with you’.

‘Why? Why the sudden concern with me? You were never concerned before’.

‘I have a family and a future to think about. I can’t have our campaign in Russia jeopardised by communists spreading disaffection’.

The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, Pg.88

When talking to his old friend Faustmann, who believes that they are just “cannon fodder” for “Russian guns and German ambition” (pg.86), Peter is quick to defend the German efforts. As a married man with a baby on the way it feels as if he has to believe in a higher cause – a bigger and better Germany. In doing so he spews out Nazi propaganda in an effort to justify his actions. Whether he truly believes in it, though, is irrelevant. He has made up his mind to fight for this cause – for a better life for his family – right to the bitter end of his disillusionment.

‘He rocked harder, heel to toe, toe to heel. He buried his face in Katharina’s hair. Shutting his eyes harder, shutting out Weiss’ spilling stomach, Kraft’s shit, his shit, everybody’s shit. He didn’t want it any more. Any of it. All he wanted was his wife. A man can survive anything when his wife is faithful to him. That’s what the Russians say. He would survive if she was faithful, if she was waiting for him’.

The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, Pg.267

Rather than focusing on the horrific aspects of the Nazi regime during World War Two, Magee’s debut novel is very much an insular one. The main protagonists don’t seem to look outside of their own experiences, they cannot empathise or do not see that what may be happening to them could be happening to others. When traumatic things happen to them (and there are a number of disturbing moments in the novel), they cannot accept that the same trauma could be inflicted on their enemies as well. As Helen Dunmore states in her Guardian review:

‘In their turn, Peter and Katherina suffer horribly, but Magee makes it clear that in themselves, they do not change. “We’re not as bad as they are,” asserts Peter of “the Russians” as the tide of history turns. Katherina is prepared to admit “we did it first”, but will not turn the stone covered by the word “it”‘.

She also believes that a drawback of the approach Magee has taken, to track the characters movements relentlessly rather than their feelings and thoughts, ‘makes it impossible to feel deeply for any character’. I have to agree entirely. I could not empathise with either of the characters, Peter in particular, when the Germans began losing the war. However, I’m not sure Magee wants us to empathise. There is no sympathy or understanding in The Undertaking, and the ending certainly captures this.

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10 Replies to “‘The Undertaking’ by Audrey Magee”

  1. Interesting. I think it might be a mistake not to allow the main Nazi characters to be individuals. Portraying them as irredeemable stereotyped monsters doesn’t help at all and perhaps prevents us dealing objectively with the past. Not allowing the victims a voice is strange as well – not really sure what the author was intending here!

    1. I don’t think it helped that the majority of the novel was made up of dialogue between the characters. A lot of the time I didn’t really understand the motives behind some of their actions so it made it difficult to relate to them. I have read other reviews where this style worked for them though. I guess you have to try these things for yourself.

  2. Thanks for an insightful review. I am actually more curious now to read the book, since the only other review I’ve read about it has been very positive. I think it might bother me, though, that there is little focus on the characters’ thoughts and feelings. That can keep the characters a little flat, in my experience, just like you point out.

    1. I have read a number of positive reviews and I suppose it was shortlisted for a reason, though, personally, it didn’t work for me. You may find it completely different though.

      1. It’s true that there isn’t a lot of explanation as to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. It was more of a deducing and wondering thing. An example is the relationship between Peter and one of his fellow soldiers, who he starts off scapegoating for his Russian roots. As time goes by, their attitudes towards each other change, but they don’t talk about it, just their behaviour changes. You can see the effect their interactions have on each other, but you aren’t explicitly given the reasons. I think if you like that sort of thing you’d give it a positive review, and not if that’s not so much your thing.

      2. Yeah I completely understand and I guess you also have to look a lot more at the larger context in which these events are taking place – there weren’t many options to opt out of the Nazi regime unless you wanted to face dire consequences.

        I felt like Peter was desperate to find a reason and a good cause behind fighting such a war, unlike Faustmann who was resigned to the fact that they were just ‘cannon fodder’, which is also understandable and made me feel slightly sympathetic towards him. No one wants to be fighting a losing war.

      3. I think you are right about Peter and I guess many must have felt like that – it would have been so much harder to bear what was happening if you felt that it was pointless.

        Peter was very fixed in his ideas, which caused the ending to be as it was. It couldn’t have been any other way, although I could see a glimmer of how it could have been different. if he had been a different person. But maybe if he hadn’t been so singleminded he wouldn’t have survived when so many around him died.

  3. Your last two reviews of the short list books have been amazing, you give a good feel for the novels. I think they have cemented my decision not to read them, not because they sound terrible, but because I cannot imagine myself enjoying them. I may wait till the latter half of the year and try then.

    1. Thank you, I definitely think they are both worth trying if you get the chance. Though, if they aren’t your kind of thing, they aren’t your kind of thing!

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