From war to fiction: ‘I didn’t care about AK-47s, I cared about people’
While reporting on conflict as a journalist, Audrey Magee saw how people created distance with talk of weaponry, and her first novel looks at the psychological impact of war
Audrey Magee at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin: ‘As long as you keep pigeon-holing, you’re getting nowhere.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Is it daring for an Irish writer to attempt the story of an ordinary German couple during the second World War? It’s a question former journalist Audrey Magee grappled with when writing her debut novel, The Undertaking .
“I struggled with this concept because I’m not Jewish and I’m not German. I walk near my house in Co Wicklow and every day I would have this argument with myself.
“Of course you can tell yourself that art has no boundaries, you have every right to pursue it, it’s literature. It’s not enough: you’re still treading on people’s souls, people’s history, people’s lives.”
Treading carefully is a familiar position for Magee, who previously visited conflict zones as a journalist for The Irish Times and the London Times .
“You’re definitely in other people’s territory,” she says of the novel’s setting, “but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you see it in a way someone closer can’t. Foreign correspondents who come to write about Ireland often hit the nail on the head.
“When I worked for the Times I learned to write about Ireland for an outside audience. That gave me courage, too.”
A formative experience
As with much writing, early experiences were formative in what would become the subject matter of The Undertaking . This included an encounter outside Dachau near Munich more than 20 years ago.
Magee, then studying German and French at UCD, and on exchange in Germany, found herself interpreting between a Jewish-American man visiting the former concentration camp and an elderly German woman who had spent her life near the walls of Dachau.
“He didn’t speak any German and she didn’t speak any English, so I was interpreting. She told us she had lived there, outside the camp’s perimeter, all her life. He couldn’t believe this; how she could have stayed there throughout. She said she knew nothing.
“They were so polarised, both unable to concede an inch because, if he did, he betrayed his family and, if she did, her life came tumbling down. She was protected, at least to herself, within that zone of not knowing. That was a mind-blowing experience. There was no middle ground between these two people.
“If you find yourself interpreting, you find yourself suddenly in the middle of really intensive emotions, none of which are your own.
“It’s different from journalism because you’re embedded in a pitch battle, but not as an observer: you’re a go-between, so you’re more involved than you are in journalism. And yet it doesn’t belong to you.”
This idea of translation, of speaking on behalf of the other, witnessing but withdrawing comment, feeds directly into the style of the prose, which is almost entirely dialogue and rarely allows an authorial narrative-voice to enter.
“I wanted to depict but never to judge,” says Magee. “I came at it because I needed to understand how something to this degree can happen to a bunch of very ordinary, nice people. Everyone feels they know it, but do we really know it?
“It hasn’t happened to that extreme, but I was in Bosnia, I was in Northern Ireland, in Rwanda. You see the same patterns of behaviour. We seem to hurtle towards these things, generation after generation. Why are we doing this to each other? That’s what I wanted to explore.”
The exploration takes the shape of an “unashamedly simple story: boy meets girl”. The narrative follows the Spinnell family in Berlin and the relationship between their daughter, Katharina Spinnell, and German soldier Peter Faber, who is fighting on the Eastern Front.