Sunday, 30 November 2008

Ararat by DM Thomas

DM Thomas is not afraid of big themes, events, major historical characters and incidents. In Ararat he takes on himself the task of ‘finishing’ a poem by Pushkin, writing a graphic description of a forgotten holocaust ¬ or at least a rarely mentioned one when an estimated one million people were slaughtered during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 - and sets up one of his narrators as a leading writers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Its theme is the creative process of writing, particularly improvisation, and I suppose as a writer that is what attracts me to it. Not so much the improvisation element but the reflections of real-life scenarios, incidents and characters and how they become distorted and transformed to create fiction and poetry.
The first time I read Ararat I thought it was a bit of a cop out and that Thomas had simply taken fragments from various stories, half-written novels and poems and constructed a loose narrative to tie them all together. Three people agree to improvise stories and poems for one another. One of them, a Soviet writer, improvises a story about a Soviet writer who on a one-night stand agrees, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with his blind companion, to improvise a story for her about another Soviet writer who is trying to complete a Pushkin story and poem about an ‘improviastore’. It is a bit like a series of Russian dolls and you wonder which one is the main doll in which all the rest are contained.
Major themes aside, one of things I love about these books is the sense of time and place that has now passed but which I can imaginatively identify with. The Soviet Union and the European Eastern Bloc haunted my imagination during the late 1970s, mostly because they were portrayed in the media as the enemy who might wipe us out at any minute. Thomas – who has translated the poems of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova into English and written a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn – doesn’t glamorize them but neither does he demonise them. His fictional Soviet writer Rosanov deals with the reality in which he lives. He is wary of ‘the authorities', unduly drawing attention to himself.
“The Sakharovs were somewhere in Gorky, but they would not thank him for turning up at their door at midnight. Besides, they were being watched, it could only bring trouble.” (Ararat pp15).
Yet he is distrustful of the west: “If the [USSR] didn’t exist [the USA] would have to invent her, yah?” (Ararat pp 143).
Perhaps Thomas did tie up a number of previously unrelated fragments under this improvisation theme – and I still got that impression during a recent rereading of Ararat. But while they clash and occasionally jar they do coalesce in to an edgy narrative that Thomas managed to carry on and develop through a further four novels – including Swallow and Sphinx which I’ve read – in which he continues with his improvisation theme and in which comfortingly familiar characters from Ararat appear, although in a sometimes slightly metamorphisised form.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Francis Stuart

I read Blacklist Section H by Francis Stuart again during a recent holiday. I first bought it more than 25 years ago and must have read it a dozen times since. It is a book I keep going back to and coming away with something new each time. I have spent quite a bit of time and money tracking down Stuart’s novels over the years, many of which are now out of print, and there are now about 20 on my book shelf.
I even tracked the author himself down in 1997 to do an interview following the publication of his last novella King David Dances. He was 95 at the time when I visited him at his home in Dublin and he was very hard of hearing and had trouble walking. Never-the-less he sat patiently with me for more than an hour and half and I'm sure he sussed out that there was more than mere journalistic interest to my questions.
It was quite surreal to hear him talking about his final meeting with Samuel Beckett in Paris when they were both in their eighties, or about conversations he’d had with WB Yeats and Liam O'Flaherty in the 1930s, and according to his biographer, Kevin Kevin Kiely, he was even introduced, briefly, to James Joyce in a Paris cafe.
However, there is always something slightly awkward about admitting that your favourite writer is Francis Stuart for he is still derided by many as a Nazi propagandist. And let’s face it there is no getting around it, Stuart went to Germany in 1940 to teach in Berlin and went on to broadcast propaganda to Ireland on behalf of Nazi Germany.
Blacklist is autobiographical but written in the third person as if Stuart was trying to stand back and dissect his own life - in particular as to how he ended up living and working in Berlin during the Second World War. Detractors who accused Stuart of being a Nazi collaborator labelled Blacklist as an attempt at self-justification, however, there is too much going on here for it to be a simple as that. Stuart goes out of his way to portray himself as flawed and selfish but with painful insights into his own psyche.
From a scene in Berlin, Stuart’s narrator, H, comes across a street in a former Jewish district and contemplates the fate of the Jews under the Nazis (this would have been in 1939 before the ’final solution’ had been fully implemented).
He writes that H “had to experience , in his own probably small degrees, some of what they suffered and, on the one level, even more because he could not claim their innocence. He had long suspected that his destiny bound him to them in a manner more obscure than their present defenders… He also realised that he would go to certain lengths in association with their persecutors, in violent reaction against the mores of home, thus ensuring that his condemnation would not, unlike theirs, arouse any sympathy.”
Stuart is a complicated character and seems to have had the attitude of ‘whatever everyone else is for I’m against it’. He was born to Irish parents in Australia in 1902 but his father took his own life when Francis was an infant. He was brought back to Ireland by his mother where he was brought up by his unionist relatives in the north until he went to public school in England. Despite his Protestant/Unionist background he married Iseult Gonne - daughter of WB Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne - and became a Catholic and a Republican who smuggled guns to Ireland for the IRA and was interned by the newly formed Free State government in the 1920s.
His novels from the 1930s seemed to almost anticipate what would actually happen to him in later life. His narrators go out of their way to align themselves with fringe elements or commit acts that ensure their isolation from society. It is from this position of isolation that Stuart seemed to believe that writers and poets would be able experience the imaginative counter currents in which great art is produced.
In Blacklist Stuart defines H’s situation shortly after his arrival in Berlin: - “Time: Deepest winter, 1940. Situation: uncertain, compromised, companionless, cold to freezing… Alternatively: alone and free and passionately involved in my own living fiction, imaginative participation unimpaired, unpredictable possibilities.”
Stuart equates great art with suffering and isolation and his novels are constantly name checking novelists, poets and painters who were pushed to the fringes of society or endured mental or physical suffering to produce great art – Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Keats, DH Lawrence, Osip Mandelshtam and Emily Bronte.
Infact, Emily Bronte actually appears in one of Stuart’s most original novels – A Hole in the Head – written in the 1970s and set in a fictional version of Belfast, where a severely mentally disturbed writer, recently abandoned by his wife, arrives in Troubles-torn ‘Belbury’ with Emily, who is as real to him as the people who exist outside his mind.
I think you almost have to buy-in to that ‘outsider’ philosophy to understand Stuart, otherwise you would simply label him as the equivalent of the schoolboy who got caught smoking behind the bike shed when he knew it was wrong but tried to justify it by saying he did it all in the name of art. The criticism would be valid if Stuart had simply produced vacuous, self-serving novels after his years in German but even his fiercest critics had to grudgingly concede that there was a certain depth to them.
The 1940s novels The Pillar of Cloud and Redemption jar against the conventional narrative of post-World War II history – which for the most part has been set down by the victors. Stuart’s his ‘late-harvest’ books (written when he was in his seventies and eighties) – A Hole in the Head, Memorial and The High Consistory ¬- challenge conventional morality and often jolt you into questioning values that most people would not consider questioning. And if you can get hold of them Pigeon Irish and The Coloured Dome, written in the early 1930s, are worth reading, not least because they seem to articulate the very philosophy that Stuart was subsequently accused of manufacturing to justify his decision to go to Germany a decade later.
However, the jumping off point has got to be Blacklist Section H, but be warned it could turn in to an obsession.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Travel Writing

I've set up a website., to promote my books and some of my travel writing, an example of which is below. The web site also includes a few excerpts from my new novel ecopunks.
The article below about a journey to Cambodia and Vietnam is actually quite dark and I'm suprised it was actually published in the normally upbeat travel section of the newspapaer I work for.
Any comments on website and suggestions for improvement will be much appreciated.

A MURKY river cluttered with litter marks the official border between Thailand and Cambodia and the boundary between modern Asia and the third world.
The contrast between the gigantic, choking sprawl of the Thai capital Bangkok and the scattered wooden huts on stilts that dot the Cambodian countryside less than 100 miles away could not be more stark.
Cambodia is a lush green country that often seems to be empty of people – you can drive for miles without seeing anyone or any sign of human habitation, except for the occasional stooped body of someone working in a flooded rice field.
The main roads are often dirt tracks which become rivers of mud after a torrential downpour, making car and bus journeys an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience.
A journey of a hundred miles can take an entire bone-juddering day, but travel by road does have its charms with intermittent stops to cross a river or lake on a makeshift ferry made from oil barrels and planks of wood lashed together.
The Cambodian government opened the country’s borders in 1998 in a bid to tap into the massive tourist trade in neighbouring Thailand, with the spectacular ruins of Angkor as the bait.
For centuries the temples at Angkor, which date from between 900 and 1300 AD, had been reclaimed by the jungle and were only rediscovered in the 19th century and the foliage cut back.
Angkor Wat is justifiably the most famous structure, but the much older Bayon with thousands of stone carved faces is also worth clambering over, while Ta Phrom which is still surrounded by jungle has a ‘just-discovered’ feel to it.
The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is not the most endearing place in the world, and although the royal palace and Bhuddhist temple in the city centre are spectacular, memories of the country’s recent violent past haunt the streets.
An estimated two million people were murdered during the rule of Pol Pott and the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s and the violence continued during the following decades.
In Phnom Pehn itself you can visit S21, a former school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation camp. It is distressing to wander through room after room where manacles and clubs have been left lying and sinister stains blot the walls.
Standing inside one of the closet-like cell and pulling the door over and listening to the nonstop chirp of geckos beyond the barred windows can only hint at the dark terror of the thousands who were brought here, interrogated, hung on the gallows outside or ultimately taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be slaughtered.
Choeung Ek is about 10 miles outside of Phnom Pehn, and an estimated 17,000 people were brought there from S21 to be butchered by gun and knife or simply bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.
Many of the graves have been exhumed and the evidence of brutality put on display in a glass tower which contains thousands of human skulls recovered from the site, arranged by sex and age.
In a way the rows upon row of numbered shelves numbs the shock of what you are seeing… it is much more difficult to stare at the vacant eye sockets of a single cracked skull in a tray labelled “females 16 to 20″ and try to picture the terror of the girl who was brought here to be murdered.
Walking round the site it is even harder to come to terms with the scattered bits of bone and fragments of clothing that still lie in occasional clusters beside the excavated pits where the bodies were buried.
Boat travel is a much more comfortable option in Cambodia than road travel and there are daily sailings from Phnom Penh along the Mekong River to land across the border at a market village called Chau Doc in Vietnam.
The bright coloured clothing of the Vietnamese and their pointed straw hats are the first things that strike you after the dark military style dress of many Cambodians.
Chau Doc is a vibrant market town surrounded by rice fields, while the nearby Mekong Delta also provides a livelihood and many people still live
and work on floating villages.
The roads in Vietnam may be surfaced but my journey on a minibus to Saigon was one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced.
The favoured means of transport in Vietnam is motorbike or moped and these weave in and out between one another, while the buses, cars and lorries honk incessantly and drive straight towards each other.
The streets of Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Mihn City) are a seething mass of bikes, and crossing the road is an act of faith where you have to edge out on the road and shuffle across while traffic zig-zags around you.
About 30 miles outside of the city you can crawl through the Chu Chi tunnels were the Viet Cong operated – literally under the feet of US forces and carried out covert operations. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam until April 1976 when the communist Viet Cong finally entered the city and US troops left.
The War Museum charts the bitter Vietnamese war in pictures and some very disturbing artifacts.
The use of gases and sprays to defoliate areas of jungle occupied by the Viet Cong caused widespread death and horrific mutilation to humans, and many exhibits in the museum provide graphic testimony to this.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Italy and Switzerland

I just got back on Tuesday night from northern Italy where we spent a week on the shores of Lake Como. It is one of those places that is unrealistically picturesque with medieval villages hugging the shoreline beneath plunging pine and larch-covered mountain slopes.
The city of Como was about an hour’s bus journey from Cadenabbia where we stayed. The historic centre was a maze of narrow cobbled streets surrounding a smallish cathedral.
It is one of those places you go to just to wander about and occasionally stop at pavement cafe for a cappuccino or a glass of wine to watch the world go by.
It is a cliche to say that Italians are stylish - at least in the northern part of the country - but they are and while I’m usually comfortable in my scruffy-Paddy-abroad garb I didn’t like to stand in the one spot for too long incase someone threw a couple of coins at my feet.
Even the dogs were stylish – I saw a poodle with carefully quaffed fur tufted into a mohican on its head and tied off with a dainty red ribbon.
This stylishness was even more apparent in Milan, which is about an hour and half from Cadennabia.
It is a city I will have to go back to sometime as a morning and afternoon were not enough time to take it all in.
Despite my aversion to fashion and brand names I couldn’t help glancing into the shop windows and wondering briefly how that jacket would look on me or how much of my mortgage I could pay off for the price of a pair of sunglasses.
During our week away we also managed to make a couple of forays across the border into Switzerland - a county I’d never been to before.
Lugano is one of the country’s financial centres and again the prices in many of the shop windows would suggest that there is a lot of loose cash floating around... 30,000 euros for a watch!
Despite such ostentatiousness Lugano is a chilled-out little city that sits on the shore of a lake, surrounded by mountains and with some fine architecture.
The journey to St Moritz was much more impressive than the ‘exclusive’ resort itself. Before our bus had even left Italy and was climbing towards the Alps the style of houses changes from Italian-villa style – stone brickwork with a slate roof – to more Alpine structures - taller with much steeper roofs and more woodwork.
The twisting road up to the Maloja Pass often left me looking into a sheer drop just a minor skid away.
Icicles hung along the roadside and patches of snow began to appear, lying ankle deep at the summit of the pass which sits at 6,000 feet.
The skiing season doesn’t actually kick off for another few weeks so St Moritz was pretty dead with just a few disconsolate strays wandering about the place.
However, a walk down the hill and along St Moritz Lake shore was a great way of getting some clean Alpine air.
Back on Lake Como we spent a day jumping on and off ferries to lake side villages, each of them offering their own unique version of quaintness.
However, if you ever end up in a place called Verano don’t go to the Pizza restaurant beside the ferry terminal.
It took 20 minutes before we got a menu, another 15 before our drinks arrived and a full hour and 20 minutes from when we first sat down before our dry, half-covered pizzas actually arrived.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Dead Rock Stars

In the 21st century, when many people in the western world are living longer, the death of rock star John Entwhistle at 57 in 2002 was appallingly premature.
Entwistle, who played with The Who, was regarded as one of the finest bass players in the world and his death came just as the band was preparing to tour the US and record its first album in 20 years.
Many commentators remarked on the lyrics of My Generation, The Who’s most famous song, which contain the words: “I hope I die before I get old”.
While the lyrics of My Generation were probably intended more as a statement of rebellion against the establishment than a death wish, in Entwistle's case they proved tragically prophetic.
But then the rock industry has seen an alarming fatality rate among some of its best known figures at the height of their careers.
The Who’s original drummer, Keith Moon, known as Moon the Loon, was the very epitome of a rock star, trashing hotel rooms, smashing up his drum kit and indulging in a putrid cocktail of toxins.
In September 1978 after attending a party thrown by Paul McCartney, Moon returned to his Mayfair flat where he took a bellyfull of sleeping tablets and other pills. When he went to bed he didn’t wake up.
Moon was aged 31 when he died, but for many rock stars 27 seemed to be the opportune age to make a rock and roll exit.
Janis Joplin’s screaming soulful voice is one of the most powerful ever to be recorded, but like many involved in the music industry a spiralling drug habit led to her downfall and eventual death from a heroin overdose at 27.
Jimi Hendrix, who redefined what could be done with the electric guitar and is still regarded
as the best rock guitarist ever, choked to death aged 27 after taking a combination of sleeping tablets and alcohol.
Jim Morrison also died at 27, although there are those who would argue that he faked his own death and is living as a recluse in Mexico.
Morrison, who was the lead singer with The Doors, had a voracious appetite for mind-altering substances and was reported to be hooked on heroin when he died in Paris in 1971.
The lack of a proper autopsy and inability to track down the doctor who signed his death certificate all fuelled the rumours that Morrison was not really dead. Despite this his grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, alongside Oscar Wilde and Chopin, attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Other rock stars who have met an early death include Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones who drowned in a swimming pool aged 27 and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who choked to death aged 32 after an alcohol and heroin binge.
The Sex Pistols bass guitarist Sid Vicious was out on bail in New York after being charged with murdering his rock groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen when he died from a heroin overdose aged just 21.
Violence is another disturbing feature of many rock star deaths and the best known incident was when former Beatle John Lennon (40) was shot dead outside his Manhattan apartment by a psychopathic fan.
Soul singer Marvin Gaye was 44 when he was shot dead by his own father during a family dispute, while Sam Cooke was shot dead and then battered with a baseball bat, aged 33, in a Los Angeles brothel.
In 1938 one the most influential Mississippi blues men Robert Johnson (27) was reported to have been stabbed to death by a jealous husband.
More sinister reports suggest that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil (he wrote songs called Hellhound on my Trial and Me and the Devil Blues) and that his early death was a result of this pact.
A number of rock stars have died at their own hands, including Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain (27) who used a shotgun to kill himself and quoted the lyrics of Neil Young’s Hey Hey My My on his suicide note – “It's better to burn out than it is to rust/The king is gone but he's not forgotten.”
Ian Curtis, who fronted post-punk band Joy Division, which later evolved into New Order, hung himself in 1980 aged 23, while melancholic English folk singer Nick Drake was just 26 when he overdosed on anti-depressants in 1974.
Despite its high fatality rate many rock stars have survived the excesses of the business and actually gone on to become model citizens.
Sonny Bono, formerly of Sonny and Cher, died in a skiing accident in 1998, but at the time he was a US Republican Congressman.
Irishmen Bob Geldof and Bono are leading figures in the global rock establishment and now spend most of their days bending the ears of political and religious leaders throughout the world instead of trashing hotel rooms and getting wasted.
In Britain many of rock’s best known names have become leading members of the British establishment and several, including Paul McCartney, Elton John and Cliff Richard, have been knighted.
Even Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, who was once the epitome of an anti-establishment rock-and-roller, has received a knighthood.
This is the same Mick Jagger who in the song Street Fighting Man wrote the lyrics:
“Hey! Said my name is called disturbance I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants.”

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks having a John Banville-fest. I’d never really taken much notice of the Booker Prize-winning author until I heard him being interviewed on RTE radio last month. He was actually talking about his crime-writer alter ego Benjamin Black and his new novel The Lemur. He gave an interesting insight into how he operates as a writer, saying that in the time it takes ‘John Banville’ to write a sentence ‘Benjamin Black’ would have finished a page.
The Lemur was my first port of call and it was a quick, unchallenging read. During his interview Banville said it had been commissioned as a 15-intallment series by The New York Times. His Irish journalist narrator John Glass – a washed-out, chain-smoking hack – is just the most blatant cliché in this novel. Glass’s artist lover lives in Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village and his father-in-law is a domineering, former CIA man and self-made billionaire. Glass eats in swish Manhattan restaurants, works in mirror-windowed skyscrapers and lives in a plush apartment.
The plot centres on the murder of an internet sleuth hired by Glass - and who he nicknames the Lemur - to help him research a biography he has been commissioned to write about his father-in-law. Again the clichés come thick and fast - Captain Ambrose of the NYPD who is investigating the killing is an archetype who has appeared in a thousand New York cop novels, TV shows and movies, while the portrayal of a black journalist is dangerously close to racial stereotyping.
What I am wondering here is – did Banville set out to write a New York crime novel ‘in the style of a New York crime novel’? Is he purposely loading all these clichés on top of one another as a sort of literary tribute act? A knowing nod to a school of writing that will bring an appreciative smile to other aficionados?
On the other hand is he just ripping the arse out of the genre and thinking ‘sure this will do?’
I picked up two Banville novels – Eclipse and The Book of Evidence – in a second-hand bookshop a few days after finishing The Lemur. The gear shift in writing was immediately evident in Eclipse. It is dense, stream-of-consciousness prose that had me constantly reaching from my dictionary. It is self-consciously literary and not afraid of being so.
Eclipse tells of an actor who has suddenly been stricken by stage fright, who leaves his wife to live in his abandoned parental home where he thinks he sees ghosts. The ghosts are not the bit that stretch the credulity, it is the father and daughter who are squatting there and who the narrator does not notice until about half way through the novel that caused me to go ‘oh come on’. There are constant references to the narrator’s own mentally-fragile daughter and dark intimations of the fate that awaits her.
However, the flimsy plot is a subservient vehicle whose sole purpose is to provide a washing line on which Banville can hang out his meticulously laundered prose. That is not a bad thing. Banville’s writing is something that, if you’re in the mood for it, is worthwhile submitting to and letting yourself be carried along by. I read a review somewhere comparing him to Samuel Beckett and that rang true. Murphy, Molloy and Malone Dies all sketch out fragile scenarios that are launching pads for philosophical musings and ponderings on the meaning of existence. Beckett kicked the ball 60 years ago and Banville is happy to keep dribbling it. That is not a criticism for he does it very well.
I bought a new copy of The Sea, which won Banville the Booker in 2005 (The Book of Evidence remains unread at this point). Different scenario, different wife and daughter but essentially the same narrative voice carried over from Eclipse. Max, an art historian whose wife has just died, returns to a seaside town where he spent a childhood holiday and became infatuated with a girl of his own age and her mother.
The emotions are definitely rawer here than in Eclipse. The inability of Max’s wife to come to terms with her terminal illness, the feeling that her body has somehow betrayed her has a horrible authenticity while Max can only bumble ineffectually and fears to say anything in case it is the wrong thing. Memories of his childhood 50 years earlier, his more recent past, during his wife’s illness, and the present intermingle and are often only separated by a full stop or hyphen. Banville clearly relishes words and can bring you up short with a sentence because it articulates something you might have once have thought about but were never really able to find the words to say.
Describing Max’s youthful relationship with Chloe, Banville writes: ‘In her I had my first experience of the absoluteness of other people… And if she was real, so, suddenly was I. She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness.’ (pp168).
‘Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still, and as with so many of these remembered scenes I see this one as a tableau.’ (pp221).
Plot-wise The Sea is much more accomplished than Eclipse and there is a nice twist in the last couple of pages that I didn’t see coming, probably because I was too busy waiting for other ones which of course didn’t materialise. Still I think I think I’m out-Banvilled for now and I’ll leave The Book of Evidence on the shelf for a while yet. I think I need to brace myself for more Banville, take a deep breath before submitting to his unsettling and occasionally annoying style of writing.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

As thick as thieves

Although my novel The Lost Chord was not written as a crime novel it does have elements of a detective story in it. Manus Brennan, the narrator follows a series of clues to try and track down his former band mate, the enigmatic Irish rock star Gino Morgan who disappeared seven years earlier. The publisher even blurbed it as ‘a novel of music and mystery’.
One of the upshots of that is that has got a bit of attention from the crime fiction community, most notably from Gerard Brennan at crimesceneni. His blog and that of novelist Declan Burke - whose novel The Big O has just been published in the US - at crimealwayspays were what inspired me to set up this one.
What strikes me most is the camaraderie and support from one another among Irish crime writers at home and abroad and although I keep feeling like a bit of an imposter I’m grateful that both Gerard and Dec have given me and The Lost Chord a bit of space on their websites.
Below is an article published in The Irish News last month about crime fiction in Ireland which includes contributions from them both.

Crime fiction is one of the fastest growing literary genres in Ireland. The Irish News decided to find out why and sent Tony Bailie to slap a couple of writers about a bit to get some answers

RAIN splashed on my hat from a broken drainpipe as the yellow sign above the gin joint flicked on and off. In the distance I could hear a cop siren wailing and the screech of tyres spinning as a car sped off. I was in one of the most run down parts of the city where the streets looked as if they needed a shave.
If anyone could put me on the right trail it was Gerard Brennan. He’d been investigating the crime fiction scene for years, knew all the players and was posting information on his website crimesceneni. Some said he was even involved. As he slouched round the corner I checked the street to make sure that he wasn’t being followed before falling in to step beside him.
“I need names?” I told him.
“Names cost money,” he said.
I peeled off a couple of greenbacks and he went to grab them but I pulled them away.
“Let’s hear you sing first,” I said.
“You can’t talk about crime fiction without mentioning the godfather of the sub-genre. Colin Bateman has been doing crime fiction with a Northern Irish sense of humour since the late nineties,” he muttered.
“His first novel, Divorcing Jack, is practically a modern day classic but he’s remained cutting edge by evolving his stories in line with the continually changing political climate of his settings.
“Then there’s this new buck from Derry. Brian McGilloway took the crime fiction scene by storm with his debut, Borderlands, set in his current hometown, Lifford.
“Adrian McKinty is a Carrickfergus man who lives in Australia. His most recent release, The Bloomsday Dead, ended the trilogy featuring Michael Forsythe, a Northern Irish hard-hardhard man with a poetic inner dialogue.
“McKinty writes prose that would make many literary types wail in envious frustration. And he mixes this deft skill with heart-wrenching, gut-punching tales of extreme violence.
“Belfast native, Sam Millar, is handling the noir end of things. In Millar’s
latest, Bloodstorm, Karl Kane is a hard-drinking, heavy-gambling, emotionally-wretched PI who has his ear to the ground on the mean streets of Belfast. When he’s not hiding from his traumatic past, he’s greasing the palms of the scummiest gangsters of the underworld to get the answers his customers are paying for.
“And then there’s Garbhan Downey. Drawing on years of experience as a journalist covering Northern Ireland politics, Downey’s novels have proved him a master satirist. His political thrillers are an education into Northern Ireland’s fantastic journey through the peace process, employing great humour and understanding to a difficult subject.”
“Does the legacy of the Troubles often filter through into novels by writers from the north?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said Brennan. “It has to. Today’s Northern Irish writers have lived through the Troubles, affected to varying degrees. Many of them, I would imagine, have dealt with their demons by writing them. Kind of like taking a deep breath and checking under the bed, just to prove to yourself that you’re not going to let fear rule.
“South of the border, the roar of the Celtic Tiger heralded a new wave of crime fiction. Writers such as Declan Hughes and Tana French are very much at the forefront of this phenomenon, revelling in the new cool of Dublin and sharing their vision of the fair city’s criminal underbelly. With wealth came a new class of criminal to the Republic, and that has been the starting block for the excellent crime fiction coming out of there.”
I decided to pay a visit to Declan Burke. The Sligo man was the author of The Big O (2007) – a story about a tiger kidnapping – and Eightball Boogie (2003). He was also the brains behind the crimealwayspays blogspot, a site devoted to Irish and international crime fiction. With The Big O published last week in the US and its sequel due in 2009 Burke was moving in to the big time.
I finally managed to track him down to the sort of seedy bar where only journalists and slimeballs hang out. Same thing really. Burke saw me coming and tried to make a break for it but I’d been expecting that and already had my Dictaphone pressed to his nose. It was a tense moment but then he just shrugged and smirked.
“Whaddya wanna know?” he demanded.
“Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why write crime fiction?”
“Crime fiction has something to say about modern Ireland, and particularly the rising levels of crime, which have been fuelled by the excess cash sloshing around as a result of the Celtic Tiger economic boom and the demilitarization of various paramilitary armies,” Burke said.
“I think crime fiction is the most relevant form of fiction being written today, as it deals with the realities of everyday life. But it’s not just concerned with gangland crime and the kind of people described as ‘criminals’ and ‘thugs’ in the tabloid press. For example various politicians have had their finances well and truly explored by various tribunals in Dublin Castle, tribunals which were set up to investigate the possibility of political corruption. So there’s all kinds of crime to be written about, whether it’s blue collar or white collar.”
“So what’s with the Yanks. Why are they interested in us?”
“American writers and fans I’ve spoken with have suggested that Irish writers have a particularly potent mix of poetry and darkness, although that might well be simply a case of perpetuating a stereotype. I think the bald truth is that Irish crime writers, once the ‘mean streets’ arrived in Ireland, proved themselves just as capable of writing good crime stories as any other nationality, and that the Irish-American connection has helped them get a sympathetic hearing.
“But that sentimental attachment will only get you so far – once you get a fair hearing, you need to be good enough to capitalise on it. John Connolly, for example, sets all of his stories in the US, in Maine especially, so he wasn’t playing on the ‘Oirish’ stereotype in order to get established. He just proved that he was the equal, if not better, of many American writers. And once you’re as good as John Connolly, the rest is easy.”

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Manchán Magan

This is a version of an article which I wrote and ran in The Irish News on Saturday (1/11/08).

Global nomad Manchán Magan has diced with death in Africa and South America, fallen in love with a Hollywood actress, lived as a hermit in the Himalayas and tried to persuade people on the Shankill Road in Belfast to speak to him in Irish. He talks about his newest travel book, Truck Fever

TO call Truck Fever a travel book is a disservice to what is also a sociological study of a small, intense and mostly screwed-up bunch of people, a psychological dissection of an extremely troubled young man who feels cast adrift from society and a political commentary on the legacy of colonialism and western exploitation in Africa.
It is also a good old-fashioned adventure story where the reader is often left wondering – ‘how the hell is he going to get out of this one?’
Although it is the third in his series of travel books, Truck Fever recounts Magan’s first big adventure in 1990 while emotionally reeling from his father’s recent death.
He travels on the back of a lorry with a group of 20 others into the deserts and mountains of north Africa, through lush forests and jungles in the centre of the continent, along the Congo River and into the safari parks in the east.
“I’d already published an Irish version of the African trip [Manchán ar Seachrán]. I tried to do it first in English but I couldn’t get it right.
I wanted the writing to be fresh,” he says.
“Then I started writing Angels and Rabies [published in 2006] because I wanted to get that part of my life out of the way.”
Angels and Rabies tells of Magan’s journey through South and North America during which he was bitten by a rabid dog in Ecuador and contemplated his imminent demise until he was given a last-minute vaccination.
He then falls for and loses the Hollywood starlet, whose identity he hints at but never actually names.
His second travel book in English is A Journey Through India (2007) – the Irish version was Baba-ji – which chronologically comes after his time in the Americas. In the first page we find him living in the high Himalayas, drinking his own urine as part of an ayurvedic skin treatment and helping out once a week in a sanctuary for lepers.
He had spent so much time on his own contemplating the depths of his mind that he felt close to insanity until his brother Ruan arrived in 1996 with a television camera and persuaded Manchán to front a documentary for the newly-established Telefis na Gaelige, now TG4.
The brothers went on to make 50 travel documentaries, shooting sequences in Irish and then reshooting them again in English to ensure that the series could be syndicated to a wider international audience.
Magan says he wrote copious diaries during his African adventure 18 years ago and that he referred constantly to these when writing Truck Fever to try to be as true to the 20-year-old that he was then.
“I definitely tried to get in to my mindset at the time. My mind would have been swimming with thoughts at the time and I tried to fit these in to the narrative line,” he says.
“I tried to write about Africa when I got back but I couldn’t. The things I write about in Truck Fever I wouldn’t have thought were all that important at the time. There were other great stories to tell when I came home but with benefit of hindsight you get a new perspective.
“I was incredibly naive at the time. I mean the sort of things that happened to me then will never happen to me again. I wouldn’t allow it. Now I would fish out my visa card to get out of some of those situations but it is different when you are younger.”
The group dynamic of his travel companions is a central theme of Truck Fever.
They include a man who believes he was once abducted by aliens, a bullying group leader who punches Magan at one point and a former British soldier who claims to have “tortured” Bobby Sands by parking a chip van beneath his prison cell air vent when he was on hunger strike.
Magan says living in close proximity to the 20 people he shared his journey with gave him an insight into how humans will divide into sub groups, prey on the weakest among them and ultimately betray one another for the sake of self-survival.
“It made a great impression on me and impacted everything about how I would live my life after that,” he says.
He now lives mostly as a recluse in a self-planted forest in Co Westmeath, writing and still making the occasional television series for TG4 – most notably last year’s No Béarla (No English) in which he travelled throughout Ireland and attempted to live day to day by speaking only Irish.
During the series he encountered open hostility and was repeatedly asked to speak English even in traditional Gaeltacht areas.
However, he was impressed with what he saw in Belfast, although he was advised while standing on the Shankill Road that speaking Irish might not be such a great idea.
Magan doesn’t plan to make any more series of No Béarla and has no more plans for any travel books, however, he has a novel coming out, I nGrá (In Love) and plans an English version.
“I still need to retreat deeper and deeper into my mind. That is what I want to write about,” he said.
“I haven’t got the words for describing that yet but that is what I want to do and I’m willing to take as long as it takes.”
Truck Fever by Manchán Magan is published by Brandon Books. £9.99.
Visit Manchá where you can order his books and watch a few clips from his documenaties.