This is my review of The Undertaking by Audrey Magee.
The undertaking is Peter Faber's marriage "in absentia" to Katharina Spinell, a Berlin bank clerk whom he has yet to meet. The motives are mercenary on both sides: he wants ten days' leave from the Russian front which makes more sense in the following chapters recounting his ordeals in Kharkov and Stalingrad, whereas she is attracted by the prospect of his war pension if he dies. As loyal followers of the Reich, accepting Nazi propaganda without question, they are happy to fall in with Hitler's half-baked scheme for keeping up population growth at the height of battle. To their surprise, although perhaps partly because of the unreal situation, they develop the mutual love which motivates them to survive many vicissitudes.
Apart from this spark of hope, "The Undertaking" pulls no punches when it comes to the portrayal of war, as the pair begin to realise, in their very different situations, that German soldiers are not invincible against an inferior foe, the Russians are not the useless, cowardly peasants they have been led to expect, and the war will not be a rapidly won victory. It takes a while for the penny to drop with two main characters who are portrayed in a realistic rather than flattering and heroic light. Without any compunction, Katharina joins her callous parents in occupying a luxurious flat from which a Jewish family has been driven; on his "honeymoon", Faber takes part without question in the nocturnal eviction of Jews organised by the sinister fixer Doctor Reinart and he persists in believing a fellow soldier is a communist of doubtful loyalty because he is Russian – unable to grasp the tragedy that, as a Russian born in German territory, the poor man belongs nowhere. Yet the reader knows that Faber and Katharina will be punished more than they deserve, since Faber is on a march to Kharkov and Stalingrad, while Berlin is destined to be looted by drunken Russians who will perpetrate mass rape out of revenge.
The author is quite clever in glossing over historical details which does not matter, as she seems true to the spirit of the times: the moral confusion, the reduction of human beings to a basic animal state under duress, and the inescapable hand of chance. Gripping but bleak, well-constructed with some excellent dramatic moments and insights into the main characters' thinking, the story reaches a well-judged conclusion, which leaves the reader with a good deal to mull over.
"The Undertaking" is in my opinion superior to a number of recent novels which have received much more attention and hype.