It is late summer 1941 and Peter Faber, a school teacher by profession but now a German soldier fighting out on the remote Russian front, carefully ties a photograph of Katharina Spinell to a post and, with witnesses to hand and a chaplain to conduct the 'ceremony', proceeds to wed her....
'...Faber was married to a woman in Berlin he had never met. A thousand miles away, at exactly the same moment, she took part in a similar ceremony witnessed by her father and mother; her part in a war pact that ensured honeymoon leave for him and a widow's pension for her in the event of his death.'
After three weeks of honeymoon leave things have gone surprisingly well. The couple do indeed seem to fall in love, each giving the other a reason to survive whatever may be ahead; a wife gives a husband a reason to fight for his country, a husband returning to the front gives a wife a reason to be proud, and I am not only intrigued by the entire premise of The Undertaking, Audrey Magee's accomplished debut novel, but also by Family Spinell. Lower down the food chain but Nazi sympathisers and party faithfuls all the same, Gunther and Esther and their daughter swiftly move from their run-down apartment into something much more luxurious from which a Jewish family have been evicted. Much to her parent's delight Katharina's pregnancy is confirmed and their status, having encouraged their daughter into a marriage for the benefit of the Fatherland, is quickly enhanced with even more special privileges.
I mean look at the cover... it's that picture, with the blizzard and the horses, I may even have used it during our War and Peace reading year,so this was never going to be much fun was it. However it is now far too late for me to retreat, and I find myself deeply iced into a book that eventually required at least four refills of a hot water bottle over several cold wet January afternoons.
I have avoided all books about the Russian sieges since reading Gillian Slovo's The Ice Road many years ago. A brilliant book and that one haunting siege experience has lasted me fine. I honestly don't need or want to read more about boiling shoes into soup etc. The Undertaking is most definitely not the sort of book I would choose read for cheer in the midst of a long winter, but Audrey Magee, to her credit, forced a march out of me after the first twenty pages, and I saw it through to the bitter end...somehow.
Anything remotely connected to a Russian siege is going to be visceral and uncomfortable, and Audrey Magee shies aways from none of it, but what makes it more so is coming to the book with hindsight and historical knowledge to hand. Everyone knows how it will end but of course the characters don't; ebullient and arrogant, patriotic and optimistic to the core, everyone is convinced of victory, so it doubles the impact of the book as that realisation of defeat and surrender dawns.
Dialogue proliferates and Audrey Magee plays to her strength with it because, whilst sometimes too much annoys me, especially if I lose track of who has said what, in this case page after page of it gave situations an immediacy that worked and kept me marching onward... by which time I have checked for frostbite and called for extra socks.
There are splendid juxtapositions between the deprivations at the front and the pockets of plenty in Berlin, city privileges available to those who collaborate with the right people. It is never quite clear exactly what Gunther Spinell has done to ingratiate himself so successfully with the ruling elite beyond securing his daughter's contribution, but the results for his family are all too apparent. Not only the luxury apartment but patronage and posh dinners, birthday cakes, parties for children with clowns, medical care you would never know there was a war on. And as Katharina sorts out the dinner party dilemma of how to eat an oyster, there's Peter, lice-ridden and worse (much much worse) swooping like a thing possessed on a bowl of donkey soup.
As word reaches Berlin that the German army is surrounded and cut off at Stalingrad, and the terrible word 'surrender' is contemplated, with it comes the cloak of disgrace for anyone connected with a soldier at the front. Doors will close and fortunes will plummet drastically for everyone, whilst Katharina and Peter's fidelity and their powers of survival will be tested to its limits, and of course as a reader I was ready and waiting for the bombing raids on Berlin to happen too.
In case you decide to read The Undertaking, I have been honest with the brutalities because I know some of you like advance warning, but hopefully not completely discouraged. Just brace for some uncomfortable moments and tear-inducing tragedies, have the hot water bottle to hand with the added layer of a fleece blanket for comfort, and take regular breaks for a pot of tea and chocolate biscuits... and don't feel too bad that Peter is now existing on... well I won't spoil it. For all this it was a good read and I was gripped... in that boggle-eyed way that a book can achieve... a sort of wide-eyed turning of pages, desperate for the agony to be over and the denoument revealed.
And I still don't know what I think about the ending...
Finally maybe don't read it last thing at night either, or you will only have yourself to blame for waking up in a cold sweat thinking you have another thirty miles to trudge through drifting snow with rags for shoes.
Apart from all that, enjoy.