The Antipodeans - by Greg McGee
The Antipodeans, set mainly in Venice and Friuli, has been a 30-year labour of love for author Greg McGee. The idea was first sparked when he lived in that region and became fascinated by tales of escaped Kiwi prisoners of war and their links to the Italian resistance. Greg was sure there was a story there, but took many years to work out how to tell it.
From Venice to the hinterland of the South Island of New Zealand, from the execution of a Gestapo commander in the last days of World War II to contemporary real estate shenanigans in Auckland, from political assassination in the darkest days of the Red Brigade to the vaulting cosmology of particle physics, the novel is vast in scope but indomitably human in its focus.
Four questions for Greg McGee
You lived in Italy for a period during your time as a professional rugby player. Which part of Italy was it and what are your key memories of that time?
I lived in Italy for about 18 months, from April/May 1976. I went to Perugia, did a short course in Italian at the Università per Stranieri, poi sono andato a Casale Sul Sile, un piccolo paese in vicino a Treviso, dove ho fatto giocatore/allenatore d'una squadra di rugby in Serie A. That experience was a seminal moment in my life, for many reasons: living so close to Venice (where I had friends from the team), but above all being involved in a common endeavour with the locals. I was politically naive at a time in Italy when everything was political - the June elections in 76 had produced ‘the historic compromise’ with Berlinguer, the universities were often occupied, the Red Brigade was blowing up banks, the trains were full of soldiers and the skies full of vapour trails from Nato jets - very different!
With this novel you treat for the first time a new topic, one which is deeply anchored in the conscience of many new Zealanders, old and young. What inspired you to write a novel about NZ soldiers in Italy ?
The Antipodeans is not a war novel. There are three story strands, one from 1942 to 1951, one from 1976, but the main strand is contemporary, where a young woman tries to unravel family connections that go back three generations. It is true that the earliest inspiration came from taking my father back to the battlefields (Cassino, the Sangro, Faenza etc.) where he’d been in WWII, but I was also inspired by my time in Italy, and by what I saw as a mutual fascination between Italy and NZ for each other’s countries - which are about the same size and at the opposite ends of the earth (the antipodes of the title).
Since living in New Zealand, I have often heard people telling the stories of their grandfathers/great uncles who fought in Italy in WWII. Is your novel based on biographical material, perhaps something that happened to a family member or to someone you know or heard about?
After I’d made the tour with my father in 78, I took him back to my village and he began talking to the other men there about war experiences. One of the old men then showed me the bullet holes in his stalle from a Nazi Stormtrooper’s machine gun, which had been fired at an escaped NZ POW hiding in the hay-loft. He told me the Kiwi had escaped and had fought with the partigiani further north. This was the first I’d heard of an Italian resistance. From that moment I began researching everything I could find about the partisans and the big connections between them and Kiwi (and other) POWs who had escaped into the Veneto countryside after the Armistice of September 1943, and who became known as Il Battaglione di Lepre, because they were hunted from dawn to dusk.
What was the most difficult task during your 16-year research phase, and did you come across something that you didn’t expect and that prompted you to introduce new elements into your original plot or even give it a new direction?
The above probably answers this question too. The most difficult decision about the book was deciding who was to tell the different strands of a complex story. Once that decision was made, a structure suggested itself, and I was on my way, courtesy of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Trust, which allowed me to go back to the Veneto and Friuli and walk in the steps of my characters. The most surprising thing I found was the grand old farm-house beside the river Livenza, which had been PG 107/7, the prison from which my characters (and real POWs) had escaped. The upper windows were still bricked up. I could look at the fields they had worked and imagine them hiding all around there after the Armistice.
Interview by Stefania Perrotta
About the Author
In his early 20s, Greg McGee played rugby as a Junior All Black and became an All Black trialist. He graduated from the University of Otago with a law degree in 1972. He first came to literary attention when he wrote the iconic New Zealand play Foreskin’s Lament (1980), followed by Tooth and Claw (1983), Out in the Cold (1983), and Whitemen (1986), each drama set in the rugby world. Since then he has had a successful career writing mainly for television, but again broke into the literary consciousness as Alix Bosco, winning the 2010 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. In 2012, Greg published Love & Money, his first novel under his own name, and in 2013 he was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.