This is a most thought-provoking book…
One can’t help feeling terribly sorry for the characters. Their lives are so blighted by World War II that it seems impossible for them ever again to find any kind of contentment. And they represent real people. There must have been real victims of war exactly like this, ordinary people experiencing the same terrors and hardships.
This is Faber, a starving German soldier at Stalingrad, lured across the ice by the promise of food:
He realised that there men on either side of him, shuffling, heads down, staring at the ice, refusing to look at each other, to observe each other’s surrender. A shot cut through the air. The man on Faber’s right fell forward, blood gushing from the back of his head. Faber stopped, registered the direction of the bullet, and ran, forcing the stiffness from his limbs as he fled east, tears streaming down his face. He wanted soup. That was all. And to see his son. To hold his wife. He ran faster, away from them, towards the laughing Russians banging spoons against metal bowls, cheering him on. He laughed too and reached his arms higher into the air, smiling in response to their smiles as he approached a large, black cooking pot. They beckoned him forward. He looked in. Chunks of meat and vegetables were simmering at the surface. He dropped his arms and cupped his hands, begging for their food. They laughed even harder, gold teeth flashing in the afternoon sun, and took his belts and wristwatch. He let them, and begged again. They put a gun to his back and steered him away from the pot, away from the smell of simmering beef. Away from the soup. (pp. 221-2)
And this is his wife, Katharina, when the Russians arrive in Berlin:
They heard them on the stairs, hard to tell how many, charging from one apartment to the next, smashing down doors, shouting at each other, running along hallways until they crashed through the cellar door, unperturbed by the barricade, torchlight swinging from one side of the room to the other. The soldiers staggered, laughing, looking first at Mrs Sachs, then at Katharina; their beams focussed on her as she pressed into her mother. Mrs Spinell moved away from her daughter. Katharina leaned towards her father. He moved away too. The soldiers shouted at her and gestured with their torches towards the door. She was still. One of them hit her across the head with his torch, the beam careering across the room. She looked at her mother, at her father. They looked at their feet. She held onto her father’s sleeve but he jutted his chin towards the door. (p. 272)
And yet, one can’t help but withhold just a little pity from these victims of a brutal war. For Katharina and Peter are perpetrators too, in the good days, in the days of German hubris, before Berlin fell. Katharina’s father has some unspecified job with the enigmatic Dr Weinart, and he bonds with his new son-in-law when they go out at night together: smashing their way into houses, rounding up the hapless Jews with violence unhampered by any sense of common humanity, and looting with impunity. Peter, a school-teacher, resents this ‘work’:
The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars. He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas of mercy.
Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm. On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman. Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.
‘I need you, Katharina.’ (p. 35)
Katharina doesn’t have her own wedding ring because theirs was a cynical marriage of convenience. With young men away at war, the birth rate was falling, so soldiers at the front became eligible for honeymoon leave. Peter hates the war, and the prospect of even a brief escape is irresistible. Katharina, chafing for a better life than living at home with her parents and perhaps not anticipating the survival of any husband at the front, is guaranteed a pension if she marries. So they wed, in a charade of a ceremony, he at the front, and she back in Berlin. (I don’t know if any of this really happened in WW2 Germany, but in the novel it’s convincing enough). Surprisingly, when Peter comes to Berlin to claim his leave and marital rights, they fall in love.
The wedding ring is not the only benefit that Katharina acquires as Berlin is emptied of its Jews. Thanks to her father’s support for the regime, the Spinells leave their shabby apartment and move into more congenial accommodation. Katharina happily savours the comfortable carpets and sheets, the space, and the matching crockery of the ‘vacated’ apartment, and is content to let her father smash the bust of Mendelssohn and burn the remaining books. She gets a nice pram, too, for the baby, and is in no doubt about its provenance:
Katharina looked up. It was a woman, in a summer dress that had once been elegant, a baby at her hip and a young child hanging from her skirt. Both were boys.
‘It works well, doesn’t it?’
The dark circles under her eyes covered much of her face.
‘Sorry?’ said Katharina.
‘The pram. It’s very good. I used to have one just like it.’
‘Yes, I like it a lot.’
‘The suspension is excellent. Better than the model I had for my first child. My daughter.’
Katharina shielded her eyes from the sun to look up at the woman, at the yellow star dirtied and torn.
‘Yes. Yes, it is.’
Silence fell between them.
‘How old is your child?’ said the woman.
She wanted to return to her magazine, but all three were staring at her, snot dribbling from the older boy’s nose.
‘How old are yours?’
‘Almost one. And the boy is three.’
‘And your daughter?’
‘Eight. Only she’s gone. Taken with her father.’
The woman’s legs buckled, and she pressed her hand onto the back of the bench for support. Katharina looked at her, at her hand on the bench, at the doctor’s pram, at the people who passed by. They could see everything. They could see Katharina talking to a Jew.
‘You can’t sit down here,’ said Katharina.
‘I know that. I’m just tired.’
The woman straightened her back and moved the baby onto the other hip. She walked away, the boy still hanging onto her skirt. Katharina checked her child, shifted him out of the light and returned to her magazine. (p 153-4)
I have quoted this exchange because it’s a good example of how Magee’s economical style conveys so much. The novel is easy to read, I could have read it in a day if work hadn’t got in the way. But here in a half a page of dialogue, we see the wealth that was used to foster resentment and envy; we see Katharina well aware of that; we note her fleeting recognition of the Jew as a human being like herself and her impulse to break an awkward silence with the conventions of maternal conversation; and then her fear of the culture which prevents her from responding to the woman’s need. And then, her decision made, we see her turn aside, shielding her child from the light. Placing him in the evil darkness that permeated Germany.
The novelist’s achievement in this book lies in the way she conjures the moral dilemma at the heart of any judgement about Germany’s guilt. As the book cover blurb says, Peter and Katharina are stained with their share of guilt for a monstrous crime against humanity. Yet they are ordinary people and by the end of the novel only the most hard-hearted of readers wouldn’t want their dream of family to be realised. The tragedy is that it’s the stain – that persistent belief in eugenics and Aryan superiority – which severs the bond between them.
Author: Audrey Magee
Title: The Undertaking
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Undertaking