In living memory

by Diana Morrow / 02 July, 2015
The realisation of an idea conceived three decades ago, Greg McGee’s new novel finds the past within the present.
Greg McGee: drawing on his own experiences. Photo/Tony Nyberg

It’s hardly surprising that Greg McGee’s new novel was over 30 years in the writing. The story, which focuses on two escaped Kiwi prisoners of war who served in the Italian Resistance and their descendants, weaves together a disparate cast of New Zealand and Italian characters and attempts to accurately convey actual events and locales over a 60-year time span.

Although McGee spent decades reading everything he could about Kiwi POWs and Italian partisans, he was determined not to let his plot be swamped by the official record. “I was all too aware that too much historical detail could asphyxiate the story and weigh it down, so I tried to just include what the characters would see and experience on the ground. Even so, I ended up having to do quite a bit of cutting back.”

The opportunity to undertake on-site research for the novel was made possible by a Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2013. “Menton sits right on the border and I’d hear as much Italian in the street as French. Venice is five hours away by car, so Mary [McGee’s wife] and I were able to go back and forth to Italy whenever we wanted, to do the research in bite-sized chunks.”

He recalls that on one trip “I was able to plot my way around the campi and calle of Venice, find the tracks my characters would have taken.” On subsequent excursions they followed in the footsteps of Kiwi POWs who fought with the partisans. “We found the cave up in the hills near the Yugoslav border where a couple of Kiwis – and my characters – lived during the winter of 43/44, and the old railway bridge over the Orvenco river that had been blown up by a Gisborne musterer.” The experience of researching at these sites fuelled the writing of the novel at a pace he’d never anticipated. “In six months at Menton, I wrote the draft of a 130,000-word novel. Mind you, I’d been thinking about it for more than 30 years.”

The idea for the novel dates back to the mid-1970s. McGee was living in Italy, having played rugby there for a time. His parents came to visit, and because his father had left an Oamaru smallholding at aged 18 to fight in World War II, they took the opportunity to visit the battlefields. “We went to Monte Cassino, the Sangro and Faenza, and stood in front of hundreds of white wooden crosses with the names of young New Zealanders, so young most of them,” says McGee. “My mother and I cried. My father might have been moved but he gave no sign of it. His generation were such tough buggers … expressing emotion didn’t come easily.”

Nevertheless, afterwards, in the village bar, McGee senior, with his son translating, told the locals a few stories about the war and they responded with stories of their own. “They told us, for example, that General Freyberg and the New Zealand Second Division were known as ‘Ali Baba and his 40,000 thieves’, due to the Kiwi’s capacity to live off the land as they advanced.”

Following his parents’ departure, some locals continued talking to McGee about the war. One older man took him to a farmhouse and showed him a line of bullets where a stormtrooper had shot at a Kiwi POW hiding in the hayloft. “I asked the inevitable question: Did he get away? He said the Kiwi had miraculously escaped and the last they’d heard he was fighting with the Italian Resistance.”

McGee’s fascination with this aspect of our military history did not diminish when he returned home to New Zealand. He continued researching for a possible novel, but for a long time remained unclear how to structure such a complex story. He wanted the book to deal not just with the war, but also with a contemporary quest for the truth: an attempt to find the past within the present. He also wanted to draw on his own memorable experiences in Italy during the mid-1970s. “Italy at that time was just so different to New Zealand: the Red Brigade was blowing up banks and kidnapping politicians, the Cold War seemed very warm and close; there were neofascisti rallying in one piazza and communisti rallying in the next.” Incorporating these disparate strands, he observes, “took a lot of time and thought, especially trying to figure out who would tell what part of the story – the critical narrative voice or perspective. Finding that was a big part of being able to move forward.”

AntipodeansFor McGee, discovering how the past works itself out in the present involved understanding the characters’ context. “I’m not interested in characters fighting in their own psychological cul-de-sac but in finding out everything that’s specific to their personal history – that’s what really interests me. If you know enough about people’s background and origins, it’s often hard not to feel compassion. I suppose I came to the story trying to understand the older generation of men I encountered growing up, who in a sense never got over the war. For some it threw a shadow over their subsequent lives, but for others it was the time they felt most alive: some men were at peace in war but could never find peace in peace.”

The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee (Upstart Press, $34.99), is out on July 9.

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