Sunday, September 02, 2018

Truck Fever: a journey through Africa - Full reviews & profiles

Full Length reviews and profiles of Truck Fever, A journey Through Africa by Manchán Magan

The Independent, October 5, 2008
Review by Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski  of Truck Fever
Riding in the back of a truck from London to Nairobi, sharing your journey with 18 strangers, one of whom you have to choose as your cooking partner and another as the person you're going to share a tent with, sounds like hell on wheels. If you've read any of Manchán Magan's travel adventures before, though, you'll appreciate it's the kind of situation his writing thrives on.
A little like Jon Ronson, but without the faux naivety and tendency to wheedle interminably, Magan is an outsider: "In a more sophisticated community, it might have made me a leader, but here I sensed I was as likely to end up the runt." Under the guidance of group leader Suzi ("one of those indomitable, fiery women who had formed the backbone of the Empire during the colonial days") the haphazard travellers, including a couple of public schoolgirls and a man who claims he used to be a torturer in the British Army, encounter drug runners, missionaries and witch doctors. Somehow Magan manages to write about it all without insulting anyone.

SUNDAY TRIBUNE by June Edwards, Sept 28, 2008
In search of adventure and self-fulfilment, Manchan Magan tells of a six-month journey 18 years ago. June Edwards weighs up the pros and cons of hindsight
TRUCK FEVER recounts in vivid detail seasoned traveller Manchan Magan's overland trip from London to Nairobi in an ex-army truck shared with 19 fellow travellers, all escaping Thatcher's Britain, when he was just 20.
Fans of the Irish travel writer, journalist and TG4 broadcaster won't be disappointed by his latest offering; the only trouble with it is that Magan is now a man of 38, and recounting stories with the hindsight of almost two decades is surely problematic in terms of how we remember events. Readers might in fact prefer the reflections of maturity as opposed to the raw self-absorption of youth.
Magan is undeniably an excellent writer, and has a wonderful talent for transporting the reader into the heart of every experience, from the heavily mint-scented Atlas mountains in Morocco to the worst, intestine-churning suffering of having dysentery in Niger. He is an intelligent observer of people and places, and his writing is sensitive and engaging.
However, he has an irritating habit of being extremely judgemental, which, if this book had been written when he was 20, would be understandable. But with the maturity of middle age, readers might expect a little less black-and-white summing up of his fellow travellers.
For example, "the three nurses – Stella, Felicity and Dorothy – were all rather similar; women in their mid-thirties, each brimming with common sense and low self-esteem." In this one cutting sentence he writes off three individuals, who from there on are frequently referred to as "the nurses". He is quick to pick out everyone's flaws. Henry has spent 40 years "diligently buckled under the leash of convention." In other words, he had a job as a quantity surveyor, all a little too dull for the young Magan who had loftier plans for his life, not to mention a well-to-do middle-class family to sustain him in his adventures, albeit from a distance!
The girls on the trip, Lucy and Natasha, are treated somewhat more kindly. Young, pretty and privately educated, they come from a similarly privileged background as the author.
Personality aside - and don't get me wrong, because Magan comes across as a likeable and decent human being - Truck Fever is a great read. Even the route the travellers take across Europe, from Spain to North Africa, and through Central Africa and southward, amounts to fascinating stuff.
And Magan doesn't gloss over the fact that this six-month journey was hellish in parts, and brought out the baser side of both himself and his the Christmas Day when he beat up one of his retired co-travellers after a dispute about stealing a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream. Nor does he glorify living in tents with no toilets or washing facilities for half a year.
Ultimately, what emerges from this book is the senselessness and unfairness of the world. While the twenty travellers have paid £1,000, a lot of money in the late '80s, to endure a difficult and dangerous trip into the heart of Africa for adventure and self-fulfilment, they encounter a young boy at the port in Morocco, who has paid a similar amount of money to an illegal trafficker to get into Spain in the hope of a better life.
Elsewhere in the desert they meet children who have walked for days in search of a can of water, and it is the sensitive re-telling of these events which saves Magan from the self-indulgence which is always at the edge of his writing. 

SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, Sept 2008, review of Truck Fever
Magan likes a challenge: in 2007 he went round Ireland speaking only Irish, and his account of travelling through America, Angel’s and Rabies, was both funny and sensual.
His latest book is an account of a truck journey from London to Mombassa with a group of drop-outs. The witch doctors, drug runners and missionaries they meet en route provide plenty of good stories, but by Magan’s own admission, these are little more than a “rapid series of superficial images” compared to the stormy dynamics of the group in the truck. Magan is especially good at conveying the traveller’s feeling of isolation within a crowd.

THE SCOTSMAN 13TH September, 2008, Review of  Truck Fever
More extreme travel from the author of Angels And Rabies, in which Magan goes by truck from London to Nairobi with a group of, well, 'eccentrics' is the kind word. As you'd expect it's comic and gruesome in equal measure.

WESTMEATH EXAMINER  20 Sept 2008 - Review of Truck Fever
Take a grand apiece off  20 strangers, fling them into a truck and promise them a six month journey overland – and through Africa – and what do you get?
Well, if  you are Westmeath writer Manchán Magan, you get bihlarzia, you get your character tested, you find yourself living a ‘Lord of the Flies’ life, and, eightenn years later, you get a remarkable travel book from it.
For Manchán, who lives in Collinstown, ‘Truck Fever: a journey through Africa’ is his third travel book and since he’s now turning to fiction, likely to be his last.
The book recalls a trip he took while he was just eighteen, and still mourning the death of his father, who remains, nonetheless, a constant presence through the writer’s adventures.
This is, however, much less a book about Africa than about the dynamics of the group of nurses, post A-level students, middle-aged travellers, and their leader and mechanic/driver, who pitched their lot in together for 6 months, and squabbled and bickered along the way.
Rule with a dictatorial hand by Suzi, the leader who had led several previous such expeditions to Africa before, this was a claustrophobic experience. We spend only 8 hours a day with the people with whom we work,a nd not much more than that daily with our families either. It is fascinating, therefore to read how it works when a group is travelling in the same truck all day, sleeping in the same encampments at nigh, and having to rmain sane and civilised.
Remainng sane and civilised is less easy than it might appear, and it’s clear from Manchán’s book that ‘civility’ was one of the conventions that frequently packed up its rucksack and snuck away from the group. There is one fascinatingly tense section in which the group fetch up in a small remote village, and are told to wait for the ferry which will arrive a day later to take them up the Congo River to Kisangani, where Suzi and the mechanic will meet up with them again.
The boat doesn’t arrive; half the party have their passports stolen, and Manchán discovers in himself a set of high principles that won’t let him abandon the party members whose passports have been stolen – even though he still has his own.
A nightmare trip ensues, during which the group, now penniless without drinking water, and indeed, many of them ill, finally get to make their way back to Kisangani.
Although that incident came close to the end of their trip, it deeply divided the group. Those who had lost their passports, and the honourable ones who remained with them were embittered towards those who had decided to forge on and fend for themselves, abandoning those who been less lucky.
It’s still a mystery to Manchán why Suzi didn’t come back with the truck, looking for the group after they failed to turn up, when planned  at Kisangani.
A beautiful writer, Manchán does give glimpses of Africa. There’s a surreal story of the city of Gbadolite – a modern glass and steel oasis built by President Mobutu – but without substance.
‘It’s a lie,’ Suzi tells the group. ‘There’s nobody in the offices or the restaurants. There’s no food in the supermarket. It’s all a charade.’
There’s sadness too in his description of how Aids is affecting so many people in Africa; the young; the beautiful; the talented. He falls briefly in love with a girl, but she is honest and tells him she ‘la sida’, as its known in French.
Early in his day in Africa, there’s a magical section: Manchán is befriended by a young African called Mustafa, and it’s through Mustafa that Manchán and some of the other group have their first ‘real’ experiences of Africa.
This is a great read. It doesn’t lecture about how poor Africa is; it doesn’t slate the West for what we’ve done there; it doesn’t trot out the clichés. It provide a picture of a country that is not as backward as it might appear from here when we see the newsclips of disasters and famines there.
In ways, however, Africa is just a backdrop. We see a beautiful country, but realise that because they are tied together as an independent group, the internal politics, friendships, tensions and experiences are to the forefront, and for that group of twenty, their experiences become more about their interactions with each other than with Africa. It is, therefore, a book that will be of as much interest to those fascinated by humans as to those fascinated by Africa.
Manchán has two other travel books to his name, each as fascinating as the other. When you’ve read ‘Truck Fever: a journey through Africa,’ go looking for ‘Angels and Rabies,’ an account of his time in South America nad Canada, and then ‘Manchán’s Travels: a journey through India.’

EVENING HERALD, Lost in Africa: a voyage of self-discovery
By Tom Galvin,Sat  Sept 13 2008
YOU may remember him as the man who put the Irish nation to shame with his No Bearla series on RTE, but -- get your phlegm ready -- Manchan Magan has been around for some time, traipsing the globe and producing both films and books for armchair adventurers.
His books thus far have taken him across India (Manchan's Travels: A Journey Through India, Brandon, €14.99) and South America (Angels and Rabies, Brandon, €14.99), while his latest, Truck Fever -- A Journey through Africa (Brandon, €14.99) recounts his expedition in an ex-army truck from London to Nairobi with a group of other lost souls, on a trip that you used to see advertised in the small ads section in the back of Sunday papers.
While there are no dates to mark the year of passage through the Dark Continent, Magan mentions in the opening chapter that he "had £1,000 saved and no idea what to do with it. I was barely 20 years of age. I knew little about anything. My dad had just died. . . I felt I had to get away."
Since £1,000 wouldn't buy you floor space in a smuggler's van these days and Magan, as we know, is a good deal older than 20, we can deduce that the trip was made in the late 80s, driven by sentiments most of us of a certain vintage can fully empathise with: escape, at any price.
The danger relating a travel experience two decades later is accounting for change -- something which would have altered the book dramatically should Magan have tried -- begging the question as to the value of such a book given the number of years that have passed.
It doesn't matter. In fact, the best travel writing only improves with age, making the experience for the armchair adventurer both spatial and temporal. And Truck Fever is travel writing at its hair-raising finest.
Apart from wanderlust, Machan -- or Mocha, as his fellow travellers refer to him as -- is clearly on a personal, spiritual journey after the death of his father.
The combination of reportage and introspection is always risky in the travel genre, since readers are ultimately concerned with the exterior environment.
But Magan is a good, pacey writer and his charm and instinct afford the reader that much width when it comes to sharing his own personal travails. You do care about him, and that's a wonderful thing.
As for the other members of the group, the years may have been kind to them but Magan certainly hasn't. Which is possibly why he left 20 years between them before painting some hilarious, eccentric, gross and scurrilous characters into his tale. It adds to the dark humour and creates an incredible microcosm for the reader to observe. But I hope he's very far away if and when his former fellow travellers read it.

VERBAL MAGAZINE An African adventure to be savoured,  by  Cathal Coyle.  
Review of Truck Fever
 For the past eight years Manchán (pronounced Man-a-hawn) Magan and his brother Ruán have travelled the world making a series of documentaries for Irish Language Network TG4 titled Global Nomad.
This ‘travelogue’ precedes these recent adventures and involves Manchán travelling overland from London to Nairobi in a truck (in the words of the author “an old troop transporter”) with what can only be described as a motley crew; including privately educated schoolgirls and a locksmith claiming to be a UFO abductee.
Truck Fever is a rollercoaster of adventure, anecdote and fresh observations about the nature of Africa and what it means to travel through the dark continent.  Arriving in Morocco, driving through the Sahara and across the centre to Kenya, the six month journey contains a set of adventures that are poignant as well as crazy. In the town of Rutshuru in the Virunga Mountains the truck accidentally knocks down a Frenchman who is speeding down a hill on a child’s scooter, while another ‘hairy’ moment sees the group come face-to-face with silverback gorillas that are fortunately of a docile temperament!
Not all recollections are light hearted; when describing the attempt to avoid dehydration as water bottles had run dry, Magan records their anxiety of the risks involved in drinking water from African rivers such as the Zambezi. Purification tablets only work effectively against micro-organisms, and the travellers had to run the risk of catching disease when drinking the water.  The reader catches a glimpse of the trials of living and travelling in a developing country.
The style of Truck Fever is very personal – and not simply on the part of the author.  He successfully relays the thoughts, feelings and anguish of his colleagues to the reader.  Magan’s use of language is delightful, he quotes one of the travellers main reason for undertaking such an arduous journey as being: “my life is more or less a selfish one, and now springs up the opportunity of wiping off a little of the long score standing against me.”
Written shortly after Magan’s father had deceased, the author places a great emphasis on the dreams he has of an imaginary friend, Johan. While initially he isn’t convinced that he is dreaming about his recently deceased father, but having read Carlos Castenada in school he tries to train himself to become conscious in his dreams to discover the true meaning of them.  This voyage of personal discovery is fascinating, and Magan incorporates this sub-theme skilfully into the travelogue.
The beauty of Truck Fever ultimately lies in its narration, Magan conveys the essence of his journey to the reader, and towards the end of the book he acknowledges the people and places that infused him with experiences and helped him to develop as a person. 

WESTMEATH EXAMINER PROFILE  -Forever on the road less travelled by Eilis Ryan
Once upon a time, there lived a man, in Collinstown, in a house made entirely of straw bales.
And the wind huffed and it puffed, but his little straw house stayed standing.
Manchan  Magan, writer, documentary maker, and now novelist, was living a what sounds like a complete death-trap, although he denies that that’s what it was.
“The reason I moved to Westmeath was to learn how to write. So I needed somewhere cheap, so I could build this..’nest’, so I built this house out of bales of straw, as I’d learnt to do in Africa, where they were building out of whatever was lying around them.
With his own self-taught electrical and plumbing skills, the house had in place a necklace of electric sockets and a stove with a back boiler. Despite how it sounds, it was safe enough, and cosy enough, and that was Manchán’s home for five years, until a crack came in the walls Eventually, he wound up building a “conventional” house – albeit with a grass roof.
Not entirely conventional is Manchán, a tall, youthful and studenty-looking 38 year-old who can be seen regularly flying around the roads of North Westmeath on his bicycle, after his day’s work has been done.
In fact, he says, he is a hermit, although probably only as much of a hermit as it is possible to be, if one wishes also to earn a living as a documentary maker and writer.
“I now have the balance. I did the going out once or twice a week to some sort of social occasion, and the more I do it, the more I yearn to get back to my house.”
He is disciplined, sitting down to his desk at 10 a.m. each morning, and writing until 3 p.m., before setting off on his cycling spins, and that discipline has – after, he claims, six years of rejection slips – seen him publish three travel books, and have one fiction book – in Irish - placed with a publisher, so watch out at Christmas for the arrival in the shops. He’s currently working on a screenplay.
The third of those travel books - Truck Fever: A Journey Through Africa – is about to hit the shops, bringing to an end, Manchan says, his writings about those big trips of his youth.
Writing is all he ever wanted to do.
“So, I decided to live in Collinstown for as long as it took me to learn how to write,” he says – although he has long outstayed that deadline, and has no inclination to move on from there in the foreseeable future, not while there’s a newly-planted 18,000 tree forest planted on his land there, in which he delights.
In his early days, when he wasn’t making any headway in his attempts to get published, it was tough going, he recalls.
“I’d get so depressed, and a local farmer, Billy Connelly, he’d try and keep me sane. I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do but write. On TV, you couldn’t get the ideas across the way you wanted to.
“I’d much rather not being able to eat than not to write,” he says. “I want to get so much better until I do write a book that is worthy of a big audience.
“Normally, people want a family and kids, and I have never been materialistic, and there’s nothing in the world I particularly want, as I noticed when I went to Africa, except finding a way of expressing my thoughts.”
“I wanted to write those three books, about that period travelling. And now I want to try to get into fiction.”
That travel trilogy began with “Angels and Rabies” in which he wrote about his experiences in South America and Canada; and was followed up by “Manchan’s Travels: A Journey Through India”, an account of his time living in a shed in India, his somewhat involuntary role in helping a young gay Indian youth make it from his village to city life, and his (Manchan) earliest forays into documentary-making.
This latest book recalls Manchan's earliest big trip, when he signed up, in London, for a six-month trip overland by truck through Africa, along with twenty strangers.
last travel book (see review on page 3 of the “Examiner Plus”).
Truck Fever: A Journey Through Africa is, like the other books, nothing short of startlingly confessional.
On that trip, that there was bullying, Manchan admits. That he didn’t disassociate himself from it, he admits. That he didn’t stand up against it – partly out of fear that he would, as he describes it, “become their patsy, their pliant bitch”, he also admits.
But then again, he says too that the one thing all twenty travellers had in common was “low self-esteem”.
While others might have been tempted – eighteen years on – to “gloss up” their own heroism, Manchan doesn’t.
“There’s an onus on a writer …you have to be honest,” he says, admitting that some of it makes for uncomfortable reading.
He was, however, just 20 at the time, but having kept a diary for the entire trip, can say what happened where, and when. But to focus on that early, naievte, that fear of being the “runt” of the group, and of keeping his head low to avoid being assigned that role, is to catch just a glimpse of who Manchán was at the start of that trip.
Much more significant is the time when some of the group found their passports stolen, and who were, consequently, unable to leave the village from where they had been due to catch a ferry upriver – which incidentally, didn’t turn up when planned. Feeling responsible for their predicament, Manchán chose not to take the easy option, and leave with others who had secured a way out, but to stay with those who were suddenly faced with the nightmare of being stranded in an isolated African village with little money, no passports, and no way way out.
That decision, and that experience, changed him.
“I did have money, and I could have escaped, but that completely idealistic decision I made – ‘I’ll stay with these people; these are my friends’ – I felt so vainglorious and proud of my decision at the time.
“I decided: ‘I want to live a life which isn’t dictated by fear, but by high ideals’. If I had pushed onto the boat I would have got out with the others, but I was thinking: ‘This is who I want to be. I want to be the person who doesn’t react in small ways, and doesn’t react out of fear’.”
He knew then he wasn’t going to come home and get a “normal” job, and he has, still, pretty much lived his life to the ideals he realised in Africa.
“I have turned down a lot of opportunities,” he says.
Manchán had never been back to Africa since that trip until May of this year, when the Irish Times sent him to Zambia.
“It was a really important trip: it got me completely hooked again and realising Africa had got under my skin, and wouldn’t let me go.
“There’s a lot of stories I want to tell. I want to do a trip maybe looking at sustainable tourism. We have to start understanding Africa more, and that it has so much to offer.”
Although he writes all the time, Manchán is perhaps better known to the general public as the face in front of the camera on the host of travel documentaries he made with his brother, Ruan, who until just a couple of weeks ago, lived in Castlepollard.
It was Ruan who got him involved in documentary making, tracking him down to the shed he lived in in India, and persuading him to join him in making a travel series for TG4.
There followed several others, mainly in the Irish language, but with English language versions filmed simultaneously and sold on to t.v. stations abroad.
Last year, he was back on the t.v. screens with “No Béarla”, a series in which he attempted to travel around Ireland using only the Irish language. He has also made a a couple of historical documentaries, one of which is blurbed by Mancháhimself thus:
“Sighle Humphreys, society belle and crack-shot Irish rebel, was my grandmother. In her house on Ailesbury road was a secret room in which the Irish rebel leaders, Michael Collins, de Valera, etc, hid out,’ explains the presenter, Manchán Magan
“In Nov 1922 the house was raided by Free State Soldiers and the IRA leader, Ernie O’Malley came out shooting. In the ensuing gun battle my great-grandmother was shot through the brain, yet survived. One man died. Who killed him – my granny or Ernie?”
It’s credentials like these that have got Manchán the few nice steady writing jobs that keep him going at the moment. He writes occasionally for The Guardian, he has a regular travel slot on the RTE news show “Drivetime” on Wednesdays, what he describes as “an enthusiastic guide to travel destinations – as an enthusiast rather than an expert”; and a weekly column in the Irish Times’s Saturday travel magazine – “Magan’s World – Tales Of A Travel Addict”.
He is also about to guest-edit the next Midland Arts magazine.
In addition, he has done readings at The Electric Picnic, and at writer Pat McCabe’s “Flat Lake Festival” in Monaghan.
He’s involved locally with the “Co-Motion” film festival for young people, and with Shawbrook School of Dance as well as with the Midland Young Writers’ group in Kilbeggan.
He loves kids and young people. Although he is currently so focused on writing, and because his natural inclinations are hermetical, he isn’t in a relationship. But he’s going to miss having Ruan’s kids so close by, after years of being able to see them whenever he wanted, and have fun with them. When people find out that he lives alone and has no wife or children they ask does he have a dog or cat.
“I don’t want anything too dependent on me,” he says.
Voices from the past
Since word came out about Manchán’s new book, he’s heard from some of those who were on that trip to Africa. It freaked him a little at first, even though he’s changed everyone’s names, and the lawyers have scrutinised the book. Because they now know it’s coming out, some of the members want to have a reunion.
Manchán won’t go though.
It was a different time, a different life – and judging by the book, there were guests at that party one would rather not bother with again.