Hazel McHaffie

Russian Front

The Undertaking

Imagine a book opening with consecutive sentences starting like this:
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘She …’
‘He …’
‘But he …
‘The ground …
‘He …’
‘The man …’

Yep, visions of primary school teachers underscoring with red ink imploring pupils to vary their structure … A-Level students receiving a begrudging scraping pass … a manuscript landing with an irritable thwack in the publisher’s waste bin, unread beyond the first page. Definitely a no-no in most people’s handbook of good writing.

And then there’s the complication of three German soldiers working alongside each other, sharing experiences and food, sharing a mission ‘to clear the communists and Jews from Russia‘ – all three surnames beginning with the same letter: Faber, Fuchs, Faustmann. Who thought that was a bright idea?

I could go on listing broken rules and yet … and yet … this book, The Undertaking by Irish author, Audrey Magee, was published by a reputable company, has been much lauded and admired, and was even shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Justifiably.

As reviewers have said it’s ‘An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book‘; ‘A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back’; ‘A moving journey through the emotional hinterlands of grief and guilt.

The language is sparse, the structure simple, the dialogue pared to the bone. But immensely powerful. Set in the time of the Second World War it tells the story of a German soldier, Peter Faber, fighting on the Russian Front who marries a photograph of a woman he has never met in order to get leave and a reason to survive the atrocities of the Front. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin the woman, Katharina, marries a photograph of the soldier to qualify for a war widow’s pension. When they meet, to their surprise and wonder, love and passion blossom, and they start to dream of a bright future in a new and better Germany with the Nazis in control. But war tears them apart and they both separately endure the terrible consequences of destruction, humiliation and defeat.

Such is Magee’s skill with language that we can feel the lice crawling in Peter’s scalp, smell his rank odour after weeks of wearing the same sweat-soaked uniform, cringe with Katharina as he begins his courtship of her in this unsavoury state. We hear the venom in the voices of soldiers who hound innocent Jews from their hiding places. We watch in stunned silence as desperate brutalised men commit acts of barbarity against animals and humans alike, as they ransack homes, violate corpses, fight against the treacherous winds howling across the Russian steppes, all on the orders of their leaders safe at home in Berlin.

It’s salutary to learn what it felt like to be German during wartime, bombed by the allies, but rewarded richly for unquestioning loyalty, on the receiving end of the largesse left by the Jews, flagging spirits rallied with falsehoods and bribes. How would we have reacted to the pressures and promises, I wonder?

The men on the battlefields believe they are in hell; wives and mothers left behind in Germany believe their own lives are a form of hell too. It’s all relative. And perhaps there could be no happy outcome in the face of such obscene suffering and futility. How can either ‘side’ really appreciate the atrocities the other has seen and endured. Many were unspeakable. Rehearsing them would only perpetuate the nightmare. Even reading the pared down accounts creates a despairing hollow in the pit of one’s stomach. Nevertheless I was left feeling profoundly sad that a love that had sustained Peter and Katharina through so much pain and horror, in the end could not survive the shame and consequences of an experience completely outside of their control.

This was Audrey Magee’s first novel and it’s a brilliant, sweeping epic of a book that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, to watch helplessly as injustice and hate and human frailty destroy lives and devastate families. It’s far from comfortable reading but I highly recommend it. And how right she was to keep her sentences sparse and simple, give us the bare bones or moral bankruptcy without adornment. This is one occasion where the rule book needed to be consigned to an inaccessible shelf.

 

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