Friday, 9 May 2014

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee

Peter Faber, a Nazi solder on the Russian front marries a photograph in a ceremony conducted by an army chaplain. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin, Katherina Spinell marries a photograph of the soldier. They meet for the first time when the lice-riddled Peter is given honeymoon leave in Berlin. Leave for him, a widow's pension for her in the event of his death. Also the possibility of a new German baby to continue the empire, which obviously every German has the God-given right to produce. Expecting a marriage of convenience, both Peter and Katherina are surprised by the strength of their attraction to each other and the passionate intensity of their relationship. After his leave, Peter returns to the Eastern front with Katherina's promise that she will wait for him.

This book handles the idea of trial by separation (and subsequent proving of the marriage bond) in an unusual way. Peter's promise to his new wife protects him, gives him a reason to drag himself outside in the morning and the courage to shoot Russian old ladies and drag screaming children from their homes because he's doing it to create a better world for his wife (and eventual child). But the reader is constantly aware of the fact that his marriage is a lie really, part of the Nazi agenda.

I've read narratives featuring Nazis before, but almost always these stories feature the politicians or soldiers. Magee writes of the ordinary people in Berlin, sitting out the war and hoping for the best. Not Katherina and her parents though. All fully buy into the Nazi ideals, swallowing propaganda as gospel and believing themselves entitled to whatever they like simply because they are German. They're vain, greedy and shameless social climbers. Her father, Gunther is an associate of the notorious Doctor Weinart whose mysterious nocturnal business involves raiding the homes of Jews and deporting them, taking the spoils for himself and his circle of friends. Katherina's family grab greedily at all the privileges and tidbits that the Doctor offers them, basking in their raised positions.

The style is sparse, detached. Functional. The narrative places the victims at arm's length so the shootings, pistol whippings and the cruel evictions are experienced through the eyes of the German soldiers, simply tasks to be done, obstacles to remove. They complain among themselves of the frustration and discomfort of being stuck in Russia, but it's mixed in with their intense feelings of pride and elation at the thought of being national heroes, expanding the reach of the great German Empire one meter at a time.

This novel made me wonder at the motivations of German soldiers (or pretty much anybody that decides to fight a war for a cause). Does an individual lace his boots and pick up his gun because he truly believes in the cause he is fighting for? Or does he eventually condition himself to believe in the cause to justify his war atrocities? To explain his behaviour and absolve his guilt? And with the Nazis in particular, did they ever doubt themselves? Did the party news of victory after victory, of triumph and entitlement ever seem even for a moment to be too good to be true? Peter and Katherina both suffer horrifically, and it's almost possible to feel sympathy for them at times. But their suffering does not change them as people, merely makes them bitter. They seem to really believe that they were right.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The eastern front from an Axis perspective is a voice that I've never experienced before and the dialogue heavy structure gave the narrative a detached immediacy. It was horrific at first, but the reader quickly becomes hard to shock. It's just the way of war. Peter and Katherina could be anybody. The narrative does not go into their inner worlds too much, but sticks to descriptions of their movements and widely-held opinions. It is not a very personal story at all and that is what makes it so thought provoking.

No comments:

Post a Comment