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.


Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Tony, for the welcome coverage, and also for reminding readers that his books in Irish preceded their English versions; this has been absent, until "Truck," even from the publisher's own blurbs, curiously.

I recommend all three of his travel narratives; I reviewed them all myself, if I may toot my own horn, the past year on my blog & on Amazon. I admire them for their honesty and observations. They pull me into areas seen and experienced I never thought I'd find a fresh perception about on the page ever again.

Magan's able to combine raw insight with lacerating scrutiny, and he does not flinch from his own weakness, complicity, or, thankfully, idealism. He's a writer who appears to be getting more self-assured even as his adventures become less predictable and more daring in their assured, fluid, alluring (re-)telling. Glad to see you're helping to get the good word out about our Manchán.

Jay Tea said...

Hi Tony,

Looking forward to reading your blog as a whole and your book reviews and recommendations in the future.
Since moving from Christchurch to Sydney and leaving behind books and a social circle, I have no-one to recommend books to me!
I was in a bookstore the other day and was looking at the new Chuck Palahniuk novel and couldn't remember if I'd heard good or bad things about it so ended up walking out with Pulp by Charles Bukowski which I'm getting to once I finish reading a borrowed copy of Wilbur Smith's Elephant Song - a novel whose insights, albeit fictional but I'm guessing based on factual research, on the Afrcian ivory trade and corruption of African governments are interesting within the context of narrative but marred by a machismo character and cliched action dialogue.