The traditional Pakistani arranged marriage which Natasha Ahmed flagged up in the comments on my post seems almost romantic relative to Peter and Katharina’s union, motivated by his desire for leave from the front and hers for the hope of leaving home and a secure pension should her husband die in service. Yet love blossoms against the odds and it’s only the thought of his wife that sustains Peter through the ill-conceived midwinter assault on Stalingrad. She, meanwhile, in conjunction with her acquisitive mother and excessively compliant father, is helping herself to the luxuries left behind in Berlin by the deported Jews.
Stylistically, the novel unfolds through short scenic chapters with a preponderance of dialogue, almost as if it were a radio play. Chapter 25 consists entirely of a brief conversation between Katharina and her father after her severely traumatised brother becomes another casualty of war:
‘Should we fetch Dr Weinart?’ asked Katharina.
‘She’ll come out of it,’ said Mr Spinell. ‘Just give her time. It is a terrible thing for a mother.’
‘And for a father?’
‘Do you feel guilty, Father?’
‘No, Katharina. Should I?’
‘I don’t know. I do.’
‘That he went back.’
‘There was nothing to be done.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘We have to play our part, Katharina. To follow orders.’
‘No matter what the consequences?’
‘Otherwise it’s chaos.’
‘It’s chaos, anyway.’
‘It will be worth it.’
‘He would have understood.’
Thank you Atlantic Books for my review copy of The Undertaking. For more about this novel the author’s ideas behind it, see my Q&A with Audrey Magee. You can discover more about the obedience experiments by watching the video on my post The Tragedy of Obedience. My short story on this theme, The Experiment Requires, has now been published by Fiction on the Web. For other angles on the treatment of the Jews under the Nazi regime, see my reviews of In Paradise and By Blood.