‘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.