Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Undertaking"

Audrey Magee worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, the Observer and the Guardian. She studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University. She lives in Wicklow with her husband and three daughters.

Magee applied the Page 69 Test to The Undertaking, her first novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
‘I don’t give a fuck about the Jews and communists, Faustmann. Only food. That’s all we want. Tell them to hand it over.’

Kraus was agitated, hungry for his men. The villagers were still. An old woman spoke.

‘She says they have nothing left,’ said Faustmann.

‘Right then,’ said Kraus. ‘We’ll just have to find it ourselves. Let’s go.’

They crashed into the small houses, ripping up floorboards, emptying cupboards, cellars, vats and wardrobes, unearthing potatoes sunflower seeds, bread and apples. But no meat. Kraus stormed back into the yard and the men followed, stuffing bread and apples into their mouths. He grabbed an old man by the collar of his tattered coat.

‘Where are the animals? Where’s the meat?’

Faustmann translated the sergeant’s fury.

‘We don’t have any,’ replied the old man.

Kraus pulled a warmed pistol from inside his tunic and placed it against the man’s head.

‘Where is it? My men need meat and I am going to find it.’

‘We don’t have any. It’s all gone.’

Kraus squeezed his finger against the trigger and the old man fell to the ground, a puff of body heat and a scarlet flush across the muddied snow. The villagers covered their mouths, frozen, until a young woman with long dark hair hanging from beneath her brightly coloured cotton headscarf stepped forward.

‘I will show you,’ she said.
The German soldiers on the Eastern front during WWII are growing more desperate, and more violent. Winter is coming and army supply lines are floundering. Food is hard to find. This scene is a turning point in just how far these men will go to secure it.

Is page 69 representative of the whole novel? Well, yes, it is as The Undertaking is about inurement, about how we close our eyes to events around us in order to improve our lot. In order to survive. That inurement is gradual, one corrupting decision making the next step a little easier until all around us is chaos.

In the novel, we follow Peter Faber and Katharina Spinell, two ordinary Germans who marry without knowing each other, he to secure honeymoon leave from the front, she to gain a pension should he die in action. The Undertaking explores what it was like to have been an ordinary German during that period, following Katharina as she wends her way towards the centre of the Nazi party, Peter as he approaches Stalingrad, each of them corrupted by the decisions they make, by the decisions foisted upon them.

The writing is spare, leaving space for the reader to ask what he or she might have done in similar circumstances.
Visit Audrey Magee's website.

--Marshal Zeringue