Monday, September 29, 2008

Manchán Magan's "Truck Fever": Book Review.

This travel narrative follows Manchán's (he's the kind of writer you want to call by his first name, even if it's mangled in all his books by those with whom he wanders into Mocha; Manchán's a rare Irish saint, and as I dislike coffee, I'll stick with what his parents named him) journeys in the Americas ("Angels & Rabies") and India ("Manchán's Travels"). All of these appear to have happened in the 90's, and while this African installment comes third in English, it appeared in its Irish version back in '98; the Indian one in Gaelic also preceded the Béarla adaptation. Although at the time of the African adventure Manchán was only twenty, years before he'd become a travel writer and documentary filmmaker (using both languages) in partnership with his brother, the scrutiny with which he approaches his task of recording, remembering, and interpreting must have been sharpened early on in his life.

I've reviewed his other two books in English (here on this blog and on Amazon) earlier this year, and I enjoyed them immensely. The Sunday Telegraph's blurb on the back sums up, for once accurately, the power of his style: "His writing is unashamedly sensual and he has an engagingly confessional narrative voice; his adventures are as poignant as they are hair-raising." While he does not delight in the half-learned, half-sniggering tone of Redmond O'Hanlon's accounts of the dangers of tropical parasites, Manchán does evoke in carefully organized, easily flowing prose his own discomforts, whether physical or emotional. Yet, he avoids special pleading or sentimentality. He scours his descriptions of cliché; he labors with Yeatsian diligence to disguise with fluid rhythms what I suspect he has pored long over in private to polish-- and roughen-- in his craft as an observer of what he finds inside himself and outside in a world that discourages, delights, and daunts him.

It's 1991, the Gulf War is about to erupt, and for a thousand pounds this Irish youth signs up alongside twenty British (with a few from the Commonwealth) amateur adventurers, mostly young, all restless, to board a refurbished British army vehicle to trundle down from Morocco across the Sahara into Niger, over to Burkina Faso, Benin, and then, halfway, to swing straight across equatorial Africa through Nigeria, Cameroon, the CAR, the former Zaire, and over the mountains into the descent towards Nairobi and then the Indian Ocean. Thirteen thousand miles, not counting getting to Ceuta at the northern tip in the first place!

I made a shortlist of favorite passages and came up with a dozen, too many for a short entry. However, I will convey the gist of his trek, employing his phrasing when I can to share his perspective. He suspects all twenty of them had a "masochistic streak" to prove themselves to parents, ex-lovers, colleagues, or siblings. "We hoped Africa would be an alembic that would convert our vapid hearts to those of heroes." (21) But, this would prove predictably hubristic. "We were like children swinging ever higher on a faulty swing, showing off to Mummy, unaware of the catastrophe that was to befall us." The group splits, yet patriarchy endures, if in feminist fashion. Suzi, their guide, the most testosterone-fuelled of them all, will lord her power over this fractious band of what soon becomes an object lesson in social regression, the failure of moral evolution, and the limits of safety vs. foolhardiness when the surrogate parent's not around anymore.

Without giving away too much of what Manchán will do mid-journey, it's certainly convincing when he tells us that he made a life-changing decision that led his companions into an extremely dangerous situation when they find themselves trapped in the depths of the Congo, needing to escape, nearing starvation, and finding themselves, indirectly through Manchán's impetuous actions, almost destitute. One element that gains appropriate consideration, given the gravity of his unthinking action-- one that nearly any young person would do in these circumstances-- turns into a reflection upon how his fellow travellers begin to fracture under pressure. A third keep their heads down, hoping to survive the rigors of the six months together relatively unscathed; another group wavers between timidity and the promise of exhilaration; the last faction, with Manchán among them, looks for the feckless and the reckless, if in rather innocent fun.

It's not quite "Lord of the Flies," but Manchán as with his previous books excels at examining how a foreign bureaucracy, strange culture, and a post-colonial revenge, as it were, can conspire to assault Europeans abroad in the Third World. His native guides assure him that while the white men break, trying vainly to reduce all to facts, those who survive the continent do so only by bending, by giving in but not succumbing under pressures that dwarf even Manchán's predicament in the Congo. As he survives his forging in the jungle's crucible, he learns to accept how the lion devours the zebra. His veneer cracks, and, I suspect, he becomes a man at last.

Africa, he muses, seems too advanced in its trust in spirits and chance; Europe, contrarily, appears to be fleeing these sinuous truths that quantum physics and a post-Christian mindset may, intriguingly, only be drawing us back towards. He listens to assorted nomads, native and European, like himself. He repels a Berber boor who appears as if he came from the pages of a book-- "an old book soaked in cheap alcohol." (49) He tries to rescue the females-- after a few months on the road-- from the advances of his fellow mates, who sometimes transform into thuggish Lotharios.

He reads a diary of James Sligo Jameson, who 103 years earlier exactly follows the route he finds himself on, that sought by Stanley into Zaire. He's relegated, at a dismal truck stop in the capital of Niger to cut paper reindeer to festoon the truck for Christmas; it's that or getting the fluff out of tampons to make a snowman. One of the schoolgirls has brought snow spray from London. He meets in Algeria's wasteland the improbably named Salade, a "mature student" among the Tuareg, and she and he bond over their memories of a publican, Dick Mack, they both knew in Dingle. He almost falls in love as he dances the soukous; he sees posters of Zairean dictator Bokassa faded in the sun until only his leopard-print wear and his horn-rimmed glasses remain visible, as if a Joan Miro abstract. A few pages later, a menacing military functionary reminds him, "withered and bucolic," of a Velásquez painting.

Manchán studies the dangers that afflict the body, punish the mind, and corrode the soul. As a remedy, he finds throughout his coming-of-age story, he turns to nature as a comfort. At moments of utter despair, he sees, for example, dawn over Tamanrasset 3000 meters above the Sahara. The sun "began to climb its way through the blackened spires and gnarled columns, carving around the monstrous needles and illuminating bits of quartzite as it went, making the world look like a monstrous neon sea urchin." (97)

Similarly, drifting on the Congo, the nadir of their journey's followed by sudden rapture in the sunlight, as they follow detours that lead them along the same path Conrad gave to Kurtz upriver. Despite the equatorial heat and oppressive humidity, not to mention their own parlous state, Manchán and his mates can rouse themselves in wonder, albeit doubly stupified. "The forest was so all-encroaching and the river so bendy that it seemed as if we were only ever sailing through a tiny, though never-ending, pond." (240)

On the savannah, nearing the end, he learns how lucky he's been to glimpse Africa without pity, to see in its integrity people still inheriting traditional patterns of civility and compassion before globalization and urbanization will wipe their spirit, perhaps, ineradicably away into the backwash of the First World. He ponders zebras under attack by a hyena.
"After the zebras had fled and the dust settled, I noticed the rib cage of a gazelle-- a Gothic cathedral of bones picked bare of meat-- rising starkly up from its wilted carpet of skin. It seemed to have been placed there solely for me: a sign to say that sometimes you had to risk death to be fully alive." (275-76)
Haunted on his trip by dreams of death, getting over the death of his father, Manchán has struggled to stare down mortality, and finally he refuses to flinch.

Manchán at various points in the expedition finds himself chemically altered, not always on endorphins or by dysentery alone, but the appeal of what he witnesses I found enhanced by his ability to balance the artificially induced high with those he attains through pushing his body and his mind to their limits. When you read his story, you gain understanding of how to bend, rather than break, under pressure. The courage that he gains will sustain him well when he roams Canada, the Andes, and India.

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