I’m not going to lie – I thought The Undertaking sounded pretty awful. The blurb had an unappetising spiel about the Russian front of the Second World War, the siege of Stalingrad, and lovers who had never met getting married. The stage was set, I feared, for bleakness with a greasy oil of sentimental romance. But we all need to stretch out of our comfort zones and I’ve read too many contemporary family dramas lately, so for the sake of diversity I gave it a reluctant try.
The good news is, I was wrong about the glacial pace I anticipated. It’s really quite a page turner. The bad news, though, is that I was right about the bleak bit. You try gussying up starvation, frostbite, rape and death among the Nazi army. The only other book I can think of set within the fighting ranks of the German army is E M Remarque’s incredible All Quiet on the Western Front (which everyone should go out and read immediately if you haven’t already). But the whole point of that book is that normal, non-ideologically driven people can be caught up in war, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t innocents. Whereas in The Undertaking, Magee takes a much bolder position in giving us “heroes” – or at least protagonists – who ARE ideologically poisoned with Nazism.
The book follows the stories of Peter and Katharina, young Germans who get married without having met, for mutual convenience. When they meet, they form a strong connection, but for most of the book they are apart: Peter at the Russian front and Katharina in wartime Berlin. They are not simply passengers on the howling train-ride that Hitler is taking the country on: Peter is an enthusiastic proponent of Nazism, taking part in raids against Jews without a thought as to his annoyance at not being in bed with Katharina, and again and again devastating poor rural Russians with a sense of total justification. Katharina, though less directly liable, has no qualms in appropriating the house and possessions of “disappeared” Jews, and when a Russian captive is presented to her as a servant never takes pause to consider her background, humanity, family or rights.
Boldly, because there must be a defensive temptation to claim loudly how wrong she knows her characters to be, Magee lets them hang themselves with their total failure to recognise the humanity of others and complete belief in their own superiority. The daring and effective thing is clashing a well-worn, lovers-parted-by-war trope with the total inhumanity of Nazism. You feel uncomfortably tempted to root for them, then find yourself suddenly repelled by the depths of their casual cruelty.
It makes you ask yourself the uncomfortable question: how would I have been in that circumstance? How much of a stand would I really have taken, given the entire context of family, politics, social discourse? It’s hard to imagine experiencing the degree of moral blindness we see here, and yet we are unsettled enough to question ourselves as to how much of a stand we would REALLY have taken.
If there is authorial judgement, it comes in the form of the suffering of the characters as Nazism declines and falls. But, staunch to the end, Magee refuses to make this redemptive. So yes, The Undertaking IS awful. But in a more clever, more interesting way than anticipated.