Author Feature: Paul Martin

Irish writer, Paul Martin:

My latest book The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife: The Hidden War of a German-Speaking Italian Family was written in an attempt at the impossible – to understand Italy. Not even all of Italy, just one region – or rather two. These are: the Marche, which is located in central Italy on the Adriatic (Eastern) coast (opposite Tuscany) and Alto Adige (formerly South Tyrol), the German-speaking region, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became part of Italy after WW1.  

Although I now live in Ireland, I have been going to Ancona, the capital of the Marche for almost thirty years. (I had also in the meanwhile spent about seven years between Australia, South America and the dotcom boomtown that was San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s). In 2007 I was handed the skeleton of this story by which to exam the country. This was recounted to me by my mother-in-law as we waited one sweltering summer day for my Italian wife, Barbara, to give birth to our first born in a small hospital in a medieval hillside town.

Barbara’s grandfather, Bruno, I was told, had returned from a German prison camp to Italy on a stolen bicycle – a great tale in itself. But then there was the kicker: it had been passed down through the family that he had been denied his war pension because it was suspected he had sided with Mussolini’s extremist Saló Republic after the 1943 Armistice.

I was immediately presented with a great challenge. How could more be learnt if Bruno had been killed in 1956 and his wife, Babí, would never discuss the war up to her death in 2015 aged almost 100? Was this suspicion linked to the fact that Bruno had returned of his own accord from Germany without awaiting the official (and documented) repatriation? Or had it something to do with Babi’s origins in Alto Adige, the German-speaking region in Northern Italy? And why had Bruno’s father, Oronzo, attempted suicide immediately after the war?

It took me more than seven years to write this book and I did it in nick of time. As the recently 75th anniversary of D-Day drove home to most, very few people are still alive who lived as adults through the Second World War. And five of the people closest to the story with whom I talked had died before it came to publication in April this year.

While centred on one family’s story this is really a story about the Italy of the Second World War and the very troubled, and blurred, memory of it that has passed down (or more accurately that has not been passed down) to today.   

In conversations with remaining members of the war generation, this tale would wind through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a Jewish internment camp in the Marche, to Italy’s disastrous Albanian campaign, to vile wars in Russia and the Balkans, to a prison in East Prussia and forced labour near Leipzig, to an impoverished and troubled post-war Ancona before arriving at its conclusion in today’s Italy.

The backdrop is of course the global crash of 2008. As I pieced this story together in the following decade, the post-Second World War era effectively came to an end. This therefore became both an “ancient” but also a completely contemporary story as the two periods have such parallels.

How is The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife different from your previous works?

This was certainly in contrast to my earlier book: Travels with Bertha: Two years travelling Australia in a 1978 Ford Stationwagon. Named as one of the “Must Read books of 2012” by the Irish Times, Ireland’s pre-eminent newspaper, it was essentially a travel tale of a young man circling Australia (several times) in (just about!) a pre-internet age.

I wrote both for different reasons. Travels with Bertha was simply an extraordinary experience which was begging to be told. Fortunately I had kept extensive diaries and the immediacy of the journey, I feel, leaps off the page. The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife is of another order, written in different times. My Australian journey took place in the 1990s when the western world seemed to be in a golden age. Communism had fallen, economies were booming, the US (and by extension Europe) clearly ruled (a very stable) world, and I was after all a young man happily and freely travelling the world.

The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife was a book written by a new father of three children as the world seemed to have fallen off a cliff. Times were fractured and the two periods – the Second World War and the post-Crash West – had too many uncanny parallels for anything but anxiety and honest examination. History, too, seemed to be dying – or at least the sensibility towards it. Who would capture those simple experiences of common people and explain in a way that we can understand today what they really mean?

The writing process

The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife was a much more intense and also more difficult book to write than Travels with Bertha. Travels with Bertha was mainly based on my own experiences which, for the most part, I could interpret and set down as I chose freely to do so. The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife was a much more sensitive and extensive writing process.

It was greatly historical which required many personal interviews and research. I also sought to counterpoint the core story of my wife’s grandparents’ war (which in itself was hugely complex and multi-layered), Italian memory of the war and a foreigner’s perspective on the country today. Not an easy task! But as in all good writing, a massive amount of work had to go into it to make the reading seem, if not simple, at least to run smoothly and rapidly.

A question sometimes people ask me is: how do I know when a text is “right”. Besides taking on the views of readers I respect, for me the text is complete when I can feel it “crackle”. Another way to describe it is I feel a writer’s task to make sure the narrative chord is a taut as is can possibly be without snapping. The author has to constantly snap tight the text (editing and rewriting), to ensure all the fluff, all the loose pieces, fly off leaving behind only that single, clear line of narrative.   

Plans for future books 

For now I’ll take a breather from writing and focus on promoting The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife and also just reading books again as the fancy takes me.

However, I have a clear idea for my next book, a historical novel centred on the Italian experiences of Myles Keogh. An Irishman, Keogh, famously, was thought to be the final cavalry man to be killed at Custer’s last stand in the battle of the Little Big Horn. The papal medal he wore – awarded to him for fighting against Garibaldi’s forces during the unification of Italy in 1860 – was taken from his corpse by Sitting Bull in acknowledgement of his outstanding bravery on the battlefield. His horse, Comanche, was the only survivor of the battle on the US side.

There’s a cracking story to be told. But for now I hope readers will enjoy my latest book The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife.

See for how American readers can purchase it. 


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