Book review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee


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The Independent Culture

One of the most brutal battles of the Second World War was the Nazi offensive against Stalingrad where atrocities were committed on both sides and the soldiers also had to contend with starvation and freezing conditions during a lengthy siege.

It was only when the German 6th Army was encircled and abandoned by Hitler that they finally surrendered. Emaciated soldiers were detained in appalling conditions in Soviet labour camps, many perished, others were not repatriated until 1956. This is the backdrop to Audrey Magee’s absorbing novel about one couple’s attempts to survive the horrors.

Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, and Katharina Spinell, a young Berlin woman, decide on a marriage of convenience – they have never met. He gets three weeks’ honeymoon leave from the front and, should he be killed in action, she is guaranteed a widow’s pension. When they do meet in the autumn of 1941 they enjoy a brief but intense sexual relationship. Returning to his regiment on the march east, Peter learns that Katharina is pregnant. Keeping the image of his wife and child in his mind he endures unimaginable hardship so that he can return to them.

The undertaking of the title is Katharina’s decision to wait for Peter, despite not knowing if he is dead or alive. She witnesses at first hand the psychological wounds of war when her brother, a shadow of his former self, is given sick leave. Despite suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) he is sent back to the front. As the tide of war turns, so Katharina’s personal fortunes change, and she has to forge a different life for herself. 

Some argue that the Soviet troops’ defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad was crucial, to the outcome of the war and the course of 20th-century Europe, so it’s not surprising that the battle has inspired numerous books and films. The Undertaking may cover familiar ground, but Magee offers an original take. She uses dialogue to great effect, immersing her reader in her characters’ fears and vividly evoking two different worlds: the civilian life in Berlin, where Katharina’s family are patronised and protected by a powerful Nazi family, is contrasted with a devastating portrait of war – the casual violence of soldiers against enemy civilians, the rape of women, and numerous cruelties played out every day.  Magee is eloquent on how violence gradually strips away layers of humanity.

The Undertaking is immensely readable and serves as a poignant reminder of the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad and its aftermath. Magee offers an insight into the deprivations of ordinary combatants as well as exploring the excesses of those in power. She vividly evokes the chilling ruthlessness of wartime Nazis as they hunt down the few remaining Jewish families and the rampaging Soviet troops as they enter Berlin. It’s an impressive debut.

Given the accounts of atrocities being carried out in Syria today, the reports of torture and starvation and the flood of refugees into neighbouring countries, Magee’s novel is also timely.