The Undertaking tells the story of Peter, fighting for Germany in the Second World War, and his new wife Katharina, who remains in Germany. They have an unusual type of arranged marriage, organised so that Peter can take three weeks leave from the front, and Katharina will get a widows pension if he is killed. After the first three weeks together, the book tracks the many years that they spend apart, while always in each other’s thoughts.
I went into this book almost blind, and it was very different to what I anticipated. Although in some respects it may sound like a love story, in reality it never felt like one. Instead, the main focus is the exploration of the Second World War from the side that I’ve never really considered; those who fought quite willingly for the Nazis.
I found the narrative style to have a curiously detached quality to it, which meant that while I didn’t grow to care for any of the characters, I remained interested in the outcomes of their actions. I can’t say that I personally loved this style, but it definitely helped to distinguish the book from others about the same topic and I can see how others would really enjoy it.
One of the most interesting things about this book is the way the personalities of Peter and Katharina unfold during the course of the novel, and the progression of the War. They mature in a way that is severe yet realistic under the conditions, but at the same time retain the same fatal personality flaws that make it difficult to become invested in their welfare.
The unsentimentality is unflinching throughout a whole host of horrible scenes; warefare, rape, xenophobia and death. It’s certainly not a book for the faint hearted but the way in which this trait is shared amongst all the characters leads the reader to question themselves about how they would and should act in similar circumstances.
I wouldn’t say I really loved this book, and because of it’s difficult topic it wasn’t an enjoyable read. Despite this, the unusual nature of it still made it a really interesting read, and I have no major criticisms of it, only that it wasn’t a perfect fit for me. I love narrative styles that manage to be beautiful while quietly tearing your heart out, whereas the author here spreads everything out before you, without really giving emotional cues. However, without spoiling the ending, it demonstrates how this style of writing can be just as powerful.
“It wrecks your head a little less, doesn’t it, when you say that you’re killing a man to protect your wife, that you’re evicting a child so yours can stay home?”