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The Road to Zagora

Richard Collins
ISBN-13: 
9781781722596
Publication Date: 
Monday, August 17, 2015
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When Richard Collins was diagnosed with a progressive incurable disease in 2006 he decided to see as much of the world as he could while his condition allowed. The result is The Road to Zagora, a singular travel book which takes in India, Nepal, Turkey, Morocco, Peru, Equador and Wales. ‘Mr Parkinson’, as Collins refers to his condition, informs the narrative.

As inveterate walkers Collins and his partner Flic decided to continue to travel ‘close to the land’ post diagnosis, leaving the tourist trails and visiting places of extremes: the Himalayas, rainforests, deserts. The difficulties of rough terrain, altitude, extremes of climate for a person with Collins’ condition are an ongoing strand of his narrative; occasionally they cannot be overcome and Collins is forced to consider the frailties of the human body in passages of moving contemplation.

The Road to Zagora also includes an element of memoir, as Parkinson’s Disease also causes Collins to reflect on his life, and in particular on his relationship with Flic. There are moments of great charm as their relationship evolves, and also the drama of previous serious illnesses. These recollections of pre-diagnosis life have the wistfulness of hindsight as Collins considers what constitutes a life well lived.

Yet any sentiment or self-pity is denied through Collins’s resolute and independent- mindedness and the quality of writing. In the travel passages the readers experiences the sheer physicality of Collins’ expeditions, along with his novelist’s eye for telling local detail. In the sequences of memoir the writing is humane, compassionate and quite often comic. The Road to Zagora is a memorable journey around the world, and the self.

REVIEWS

Review by Jamie Harris, New Welsh Review

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Road to Zagora (Seren, 2015) is a non-fiction account of Collins’ travels both prior to and since his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease. Given that his journey takes him to some politically and geographically turbulent locations (a volcano erupts not far from one hotel), he treads lightly on politics, but attempts nonetheless to get to the heart of the traveller’s experience. The book is compiled from material from a mixture of journals, sketchbooks, and blog entries, but perhaps the overriding theme of the book is memory.

There is little historical context provided for the places visited, and as a result the book is necessarily subjective and immediate. While Collins’ diagnosis frames the narrative, it is not the only thread that ties together its intentionally disparate sections. Disconnected chapters are ordered alphabetically by place name, and the emphasis on narrative shape stretches the limits of the travelogue. The result is the emergence of an occasionally uneven, but increasingly involving story.

Collins doesn’t consider attention to detail as necessary to his role as travel writer, writing that:

 

These are unreliable memories of unreliable memories and are totally untrustworthy. My guess is that memories are turned into stories and are drafted, edited and fictionalised within moments of an event happening. When they are re-remembered they are changed again. There must be so many things that shape our personal fictions: a particular understanding of human nature; a world view complete with religious belief or its absence; a narrative of a relationship; wishful thinking; a tendency toward denial. Most of all there is a need to tell a good story.

 

As Collins alludes to above, this is essentially a novelist’s travelogue, one that prioritises the flow of the narrative over the reader’s expectation of geographical or chronological order. However, this awareness of the fictionalisation of events, whether conscious or unconscious, strikes at the heart of what it is that separates good travel writing from guide books.

There are several passages written seemingly without the aid of notebooks, with misremembered details and direct references to facts omitted on personal grounds. There are also passages quoted directly from the journal of Flic, Collins’ wife and travel companion, which describe their experience in a much more matter-of-fact way. Keeping up with Collins’ style throughout is breathless but rewarding work. Flic’s journal entries help in this regard. They break up the occasional tangents that Collins is prone to, but they also contain some of the most poignant reflections on the author’s illness and its impact on their plans to explore some more treacherous terrain.

Early on in the book, Collins writes that ‘Flic was brought up to share and to practise great tolerance. I wasn't.’ It is a telling reflection, one that foreshadows the author’s difficulty in empathising with many of the people he encounters, whether fellow travellers, local tradesmen, or Sherpas carrying supplies. There are plenty of references to the extent to which the local population can speak English, but not so many instances recounted in which Collins himself tries to speak the local language.

Collins prefers to ask questions rather than attempt answers. This is consistent with his approach to writing, in which he prioritises his honest reaction over considered reflection. Referring to their observations of local dress in Peru, Collins writes: ‘It’s a huge cultural difference from our society where people dress more or less individually. An anthropologist might explain it but I can’t.’ At times, Collins seems perplexed by local idiosyncrasies, raising an interesting point about the predominance of European-descended actors on Peruvian television (rather than those of ‘native’ American descent), and asks: ‘What does that tell you about that society? I’m not sure, but it isn’t good.’ Refreshingly, Collins is not afraid to play the bad guy, a role he shares with ‘Mr Parkinson’. He openly acknowledges his own prejudices, but the passages that often follow, in which he describes how he overcomes them, are the book’s highpoints.

In many ways the strength of The Road to Zagora is its greatest potential weakness. Its cut-and-paste approach to structure, one that is ordered neither by chronology (as one might expect from a travelogue of this sort), nor geography (the several sections on India are interspersed throughout the book rather than being confined to one section), can result in significant pacing issues. However, as Collins himself observes, ‘[t]here are so many ways to tell a story and sometimes mere chronology has its limits. Memory doesn’t work like that, it drifts backwards and forwards in time….’

Jamie Harris is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University where he specialises in the work of Iain Sinclair.

 

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