Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee

the undertakingReview by JJ Marsh

The Baileys Prize Shortlist

What We Thought:
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?

This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.
Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them.

Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.

The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.

This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Suite Française, The Siege, The Zookeeper's War

Avoid if you dislike: realities of conflict, cruelty as pragmatism and a reminder of humanity

Ideal accompaniments: Dried horsemeat, a shot of Underberg and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

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