I already had this on my list of books I wanted to read, but its inclusion on the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction longlist encouraged me to push it to the top of the pile. It’s the first book from the list that I’ve read so I hope I’m not premature in hoping it makes the shortlist. I don’t think I am, as I found it an exceptional novel.
Peter Faber’s desire to escape the Eastern front is so great he enters into a mail-order marriage for the ten days honeymoon leave it merits. It’s an inauspicious start to a relationship; the bride and groom are even married by proxy in their separate locations. Peter seems careless of his chosen wife. He abandons her picture thoughtlessly and the pair’s first conversation lacks any spark:
‘We’re on the second floor.
I didn’t know you lived with them.
I’m not paid enough to live by myself.
I suppose not. What do you do?
I told you in my letter. I work in a bank. As a typist.
Oh yes, I forgot.’
That casual last line from Peter made me fear the worst for them, but surprisingly they quickly form a bond. In all of the horror that follows, it is the hope of seeing each other again that motivates both Peter and Katharina.
Reading The Undertaking is not a gentle or relaxing experience. The brutal reality of life in the army as it marches on Russia is as grim as could be expected. The horror of life on the home front in Berlin is possibly more shocking. It’s a very different experience reading about the German domestic front. When I think about novels set in Britain during the Second World War there’s often an aura of the Spirit of the Blitz about them – stoicism mixed with pride and pluck and a smattering of humour. I’m not suggesting that’s the entirety of it nor wanting to downplay the real hardship and tragedy, but in popular culture slogans such as Make Do and Mend, Dig for Victory, and even the recently popular Keep Calm and Carry On exemplify wartime civilian life.
The scene painted of Berlin in The Undertaking is much darker. Katherina’s father Mr Spinell is in thrall to Dr Weinart, a man clearly well respected in the Nazi Party. Spinell is a weak man, eagerly swallowing the party rhetoric if it gets him a little further up the social ladder. He embroils Peter in their night-time activities and he too becomes more ideologically engaged in the war. The Spinell family is rewarded for their loyalty with a new luxurious apartment that the previous tenants, euphemistically, no longer have a use for. The mass eviction of Jewish families from their homes and theft of their possessions is well known, but still retains the power to appal, the knowledge that concentration camps provide their alternative accommodation makes it hard to bear. The mistrust and suspicion amongst neighbours is horribly realistically portrayed. Mr Spinell’s assertion that communists are hiding amongst them by being neighbourly indicates the depth of paranoia at work.
Katharina does her share of networking and enjoys the benefits it brings. She wears fur coats, eats good food, and goes to the best parties while her erstwhile neighbours freeze in line for what little meat there is in the butcher’s shop. She is motivated by the dream of a future that includes Peter and a family of their own. She accepts the benefits she gains from the men’s association with the Party without questioning too deeply what it means. Hers is a shallow attachment and like her mother her real commitment is to her loved ones, to the exclusion of other considerations. The war takes a heavy toll on both women, and I was left feeling some sympathy for Katharina. I couldn’t find it within myself to excuse her parents their actions, and she is, I think, utterly betrayed by them both.
The book doesn’t shy away from exposing the brutality that happens on all sides of war. The Russian army treated the captured German soldiers badly, and their invading troops when they reached Berlin committed horrors of their own. There was an interesting snippet in the March edition of BBC History magazine about the motivations for American soldiers looting in Germany at the end of war. One reason was for revenge – brutality begets more brutality. And so it is here as Katharina hides in the cellar as Berlin falls. In such a novel as this there can be no fairytale ending.
I can’t say I enjoyed The Undertaking; it’s too stark and terrible for such a word to fit. It is told in a beautifully simple and direct style that suits the subject matter perfectly. I admire the writing enormously. I found it challenging and moving, and I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
The Undertaking is available now in hardback, published by Atlantic Books. I bought my copy from a bookshop.