Before I picked up The Undertaking, I had never read a World War II novel with a Nazi supporter as the central character. I felt curious about how the author would prompt me to care about the struggles of her characters, especially if they never switched sides `a la Schindler’s List.
The story begins with an unexpected love affair between Peter Faber, a German soldier, and Katharina Spinell, a young woman whose family has gained favor with the Nazi party. Faber and Katharina marry sight-unseen with the help of a state-sponsored program. At first, Faber only marries so he can obtain ten days of leave from fighting in Russia. Katharina, on the other hand, wants the economic security his income offers. When they finally meet, they discover a mutual attraction.
Faber spends most of his honeymoon in bliss with his wife, but before he returns to the front, his father-in-law convinces him to help raid Jewish homes:“They found them, two old men, three women and four children behind a false wall under the stairs. Faber put his gun to their backs and marched them into a truck parked under darkened street lamps.” His actions in this scene posed the first challenge to my empathy for him.
Katharina has a different, more indirect culpability in the Holocaust. Her chapters are set in Berlin. Although she does not go on raids with her father, she delights in the lavish new apartment her father’s political connections secure them. It used to belong to a Jewish family. Katharina and her mother “threw off their shoes and rushed around the apartment, laughing as they opened doors onto enormous bedrooms and balconies.” They open the closets and try on the clothes. When Katharina’s mother tries on a red dress, Katharina tells her it’s beautiful and that she deserves it. Her mother’s only hesitation comes from her fear of wearing the same cloth as a Jewish woman.
The beauty and complexity of this novel rests in its ability to make these deeply flawed characters human. In many ways, Katharina and Faber are two young people trying to make sense of the world. Faber and his father argue about his decision to marry Katharina. Faber wants to move to Berlin when the war ends and take a political job, while his father wants him to be a teacher. Their argument sounds typical of a young adult challenging the plans a parent has laid out for him.
Katharina, too, wants a future separate from her parents’: “She closed her bedroom door and pushed against it, locking out her parents. She was twenty-two years of age. A married woman. When would they accept that and stop calling her girl?” She lives through numerous bombings, all while learning to be a mother to the son she has with Faber: “She pushed aside her nightdress, and lifted him to her nipple, her back taut, waiting for the shot of pain as he sucked. She slapped her feet against the floor and sang until the pain passed, until the nerves coursing up and down her spine settled into the rhythm of his feeding.” In these moments, Katharina’s desires are easy to empathize with: she wants independence from her parents and to care for her own child.
When Faber returns to Russia with renewed political purpose, he tells his fellow soldiers he is fighting for a better future for his wife and child. Because of the spark of love between Faber and Katharina and because of their love for their son, I struggled with my emotional response as I read. I wanted to wish them well because I cared about them, but I also hoped for their fall because I knew how their actions hurt others.
I read The Undertaking in two sittings. Sixty chapters break up the 304 pages into brief, brutal glimpses of Katharina and Faber’s lives. The following passage describes Faber’s sergeant’s method of obtaining food: “Kraus shot an old man. Nobody moved. Then he shot another. Still no response. He brought a young woman forward, a mother, and shot her, her young boy screaming beside her. The food appeared. They sat in the village square and ate.” Magee’s spare, unforgiving prose took me to the desolate Eastern Front and into the core of Berlin. She showed me human beings failing at compassion, all while challenging my own. World War II buffs will enjoy it, but for anyone interested in the complexities of the human heart, this is a must-read.
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee, 2014
Grove Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $25.00