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Audrey Magee: The Undertaking

Peter Faber is a soldier in the German army, invading the Soviet Union during World War II. The German army has allowed soldiers to marry German women, remotely, which involves a pastor performing a ceremony between Peter and the photo of a woman who has selected him from a number of candidates while, at the same time, back in Berlin, she (Katharina Spinell) marries a photo of Peter. Her parents – she still lives with them – are not entirely happy. Her mother would have preferred Katharina to select the fat doctor’s son. Peter’s parents do not know and, when they do find out, his father says that the Nazis have encouraged this, as it is part of their breeding programme. The advantage for Peter is that he is given three weeks’ leave from the front for his honeymoon, while the advantage for Kathrina is that, if he is killed in action, she will receive a widow’s pension.

Peter duly returns to Berlin, where he meets Katharina and her parents for the first time. He smells horribly and has lice in his hair. He is cleaned up, while Katharina delouses him. Gradually, the pair realise that they are compatible and grow fond of another. Katharina’s father has a friend, Dr Weinart (a medical doctor), who turns out to be an SS officer. He is able to provide the Spinells with a few luxuries. However, he enrols Peter in his evening activities which consists of brownshirts breaking into Jewish homes, beating up the Jews, taking them away and stealing their property. Peter seems to carry out this task mechanically, showing no feeling either way, though he does steal a gold ring from a Jewish woman to give to Katharina. Dr Weinart even suggest that he can find a better job for Peter (he is currently an elementary school teacher) after the war. The couple go to Darmstadt to visit Peter’s parents, who are unaware of their son’s marriage, till he arrives, and are horrified.

Peter’s brownshirt activities gives him ten days of extra leave but, eventually, he has to return to the Russian front. The day after he leaves, Dr Weinart finds a lovely flat for the Spinells, taken from a Jewish family. The Spinells hurriedly move in, getting not only the flat but its contents. The Spinells have a son, Johannes, who is also at the Russian front and he has to return with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. When he returns, he is so gaunt that his family barely recognise him. He is unable to function, mumbling to himself, unable to feed himself, and incontinent. Thanks to the care of his family, he gradually recovers, but not only does he not remember being at the Russian front, he strenuously denies it. However, he is obliged to return and Dr Weinart will not extend his leave. In the meantime, Katharina realises that she is pregnant.

Meanwhile, Peter is back at the front, assured by Dr Weinart and the officers of Peter’s regiment that the war will be over by Christmas. We follow his small battalion as they march eastwards. Life is not easy. One man, Fuchs, is in in a bad way and is always coughing. The medic says that he is all right to continue. The weather is bitter – several of the men get frostbite – and food is hard to come by. However, it is much worse for the unfortunately Russian peasants on the route of the German army, who can find themselves thrown out of their houses, their food stolen and their women raped. The Germans were expecting little resistance from the Russians and are therefore surprised, when they approach Kharkov, to find heavy resistance from both artillery and planes. But, of course, they are moving towards Stalingrad, where they will be involved in the Battle of Stalingrad. I have two other novels on this site featuring the Battle of Stalingrad. The first is from the Soviet point of view: Vasily Grossman‘s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate), while the second is from the German point of view but, like this one, not written by a German: Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). All three show that for all participants, regardless of nationality, this battle was hell. For Faber and his comrades, the persistent attacks, illness, starvation and the feeling of being abandoned by their superiors make for a very grim situation and Magee does not hold back from the horrors. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, things are also getting worse. Magee takes the story through till well after the war, with the Russians and Americans still occupying Berlin.

It certainly is an interesting idea and a well-told story. Magee apparently came across the story when she met a man in Ireland who had been a German soldier. He had married a woman he did not know, in the same way that Peter Faber married Katharina Spinell. As a journalist, Magee also saw the horrors of Bosnia, child labour in India and Pakistan and the effects of perestroika in Central Asia. All of this, she has said, very much influenced her in writing this novel. It was on the shortlist for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 and a worthy candidate.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Atlantic Books