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Review: The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee
Atlantic, 2014. 287 pp. $25

It’s autumn 1941, and a young German soldier is so eager to escape the Russian killing grounds of World War II that he weds a woman he’s never met. This gives Peter the privilege to leave the ranks for ten days, whereas Katharina will receive a pension, if he dies, and the right to call herself a married woman. Surprisingly, the pair take to one another, and when Peter returns to Russia, memories of their brief time together will have to warm them over many cold months.

From this bold, startling premise spins a novel in the same vein, spare and unflinching, often as brutal as the war it describes. The way I read The Undertaking, Magee argues that Germans made a marriage of convenience, embracing Nazism out of greed and a temporary advantage that they trusted would be long-lasting. I like novels based on a simple metaphor, and juxtaposing marriage with a hideous, criminal regime is a brilliant concept.

Soviet soldiers at Stalingrad, ca. 1942 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

Soviet soldiers at Stalingrad, ca. 1942 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

Told largely through dialogue, usually in short sentences, Magee’s narrative packs remarkable punch in few words. I liked the group scenes best, especially the tension between Katharina and her parents, which results not from politics–they’re convinced Nazis, all–but from a young woman’s desire to live her own life. As for Peter and his comrades, it takes awhile for them to emerge as an entity, but some of the later scenes held me, most notably their attempts to help each other survive the battle of Stalingrad.

Even so, dialogue-as-narrative can only go so deep. Not even Katharina, whose portrayal is more complete than Peter’s, reveals an inner life. Magee allows them hardly any memories or associations to whatever they experience, nor reflections about what they’ve done.

This dissociation appears deliberate on the author’s part. Katharina wears jewelry and dresses stolen from deported Jews, and her family’s new apartment was once occupied by Jews. But she has no feelings about this, not even when she meets a starving Jewish woman in a park. Similarly, Peter helps Dr. Weinart, a friend of his father-in-law’s, to raid Jewish homes and deport the inhabitants, beating them if they don’t move fast enough. Yet he doesn’t think twice about it. He rationalizes nothing; he simply resents the evenings spent away from Katharina.

I doubt whether civilian SS officers, as Weinart seems to be, ever led such raids or recruited active soldiers to participate (and they certainly didn’t wear brown uniforms). Nor do I believe how the remarkably ubiquitous, all-powerful Weinart runs Katharina’s family and personifies the entire bureaucracy and social fabric of the Third Reich. For example, no secret police, neighborhood informants, or orchestrated patriotic displays appear, only the evil doctor. But historical fudging or shallow convenience aren’t the greatest flaws; it’s that Weinart’s wealth and promises of advancement have seduced Peter, and we don’t know how or why. Before the war, Peter was a schoolteacher in Darmstadt, like his father, and, up until meeting Weinart, wanted more than anything to resume that career. Why has he changed his mind? I think Magee wants us to believe that he always had his greedy, violent urges, and that marriage gave him an excuse to exercise them.

That conclusion fits her central metaphor, but we have only her word for it, not the characters’ thoughts or actions. Are Peter and Katharina meant to be psychopaths? If so, can a person really become psychopathic from mere temptation, as with the flick of a switch? More importantly, no matter how you label Peter and Katharina, how can a reader feel empathy for characters who have none themselves, who act with so little conscience? Doesn’t that violate the purpose of a novel?

I have to assume that Peter and Katharina are supposed to represent Germany, yet I sense that Magee’s too perceptive to ascribe genocide and a world war to a simple absence of human feeling. Even so, she offers no other credible explanation; by reducing her main characters to moral and psychological automata, she robs them and their actions of the complexity they deserve.

The Undertaking is another nominee for the Walter Scott Prize. It’s a well-written, thought-provoking book, but I wouldn’t put it on the short list.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.