The Road to Zagora

Richard Collins
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.


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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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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