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PBS Jungle Man Plunges Into Universal Love : EXPLORER by Douchan Gersi (Jeremy P. Tarcher: $18.95; 285 pp., illustrated)

January 10, 1988|Bob Sipchen | Sipchen is a Times staff writer. and

Anyone who has traveled in undeveloped countries knows the type. He plops down beside you in a bar or on a crowded long-distance bus and right off the bat starts describing the methods he has used to pluck jungle leeches from various parts of his anatomy.

If that doesn't make you squirm, he tells you about the time he had to eat leeches to survive. How long you listen to this person depends both on his skill as a storyteller and how much you care about what he has to say. If you listen long enough, rest assured he'll get teary-eyed and pour out the philosophy of life he's formulated after so many brushes with death.

Judging from "Explorer," Douchan Gersi is that kind of guy--a parody of the type, even.

The maker of the recent thirteen-part PBS TV series "Explorer" and other documentaries, Gersi has spent most of his 40 years venturing into "uncharted terrain" around the world. "Explorer" is a first-person chronicle of Gersi's expeditions into the most remote parts of the Philippines and Borneo. There's little choice but to suspend disbelief in reading an account like this. To investigate Gersi's vaguely documented claims, given the remote turf in which they occur, would take more effort than verifying the details of Ollie North's adventurism. But then Gersi's storytelling is so guileless, there's little temptation to doubt his basic veracity.

Gersi's observations about the tragedy of the cultures he calls "the people of tradition" is clearly heartfelt. Of one tribe he writes, "The bulldozer of modern civilization driven by the profit motive is irresistible, and one day the Sekapan, like all tribes, will vanish. The surviving members will be merged into the proletariat of dispossessed people."

But trained anthropologists often dedicate their lives to understanding the behavior of just one culture, while Gersi's perpetual lust for adventure precluded formal academics. So it's no wonder that the information he tosses out offers little scientific insight into the various cultures he visits.

Nor does he shed much light on the art of how adventure documentaries are made, mentioning only in passing his observation of a crocodile from behind a hand-made blind, or how he tied with thread the legs of a venomous spider to get a good close-up.

What he does shed light on is himself.

Which might be fine. The time is right for a resurgence of well-wrought adventure literature. SRI International's Values and Life Styles study found that a growing segment of the population are "experientials," people who are "vigorously involved in life" and eager to seek out new experiences. Upscale urban folks are paying big bucks these days for "adventure travel," and the tales of this no-holds-barred experiencer's encounters with headhunters and wild rapids, amorous sultans and machine-gun-wielding pirates should add up to an Indiana Jones-style thriller.

But "Explorer" reads like a transcription of the live travelogues Gersi used to perform as narrative to his films. Supported by ongoing visual images and embellished with gestures and facial expressions, eye contact, and a modicum of charisma, Gersi's yarns would be gripping. But Gersi's voice as an author is oddly monotonous. His native markets and remote villages are heaps of adjectives. His enthusiasm and his agony are expressed in strings of cliches--"the jungle is a vast symphony . . . once again I tasted pure joy . . . it all seemed endless, each hour an eternity."

A chest-thumping Tarzan of a man, Gersi also gets downright weepy in castigating himself for his shortcomings: for entering a sacred burial cave, thereby violating the sacred taboo of a people who trusted him; for continually neglecting his civilized daughters in favor of excitement; for abandoning to an uncertain fate a young native wife.

Simple, self-absorbed and silly as he sometimes is--"In my attempt to fulfill the possiblilities of life, I try to become a man-god, my fingers reaching out to the cosmos, my heart plunging into universal love"--he occasionally extricates himself with self-deprecating humor.

At the same time, though, he notches his conquests in this book in the same manner of traditional people tattooing their arms with the number of human heads they have severed.

Finally, these contradictions are what is intriguing about the book. In revealing himself, Gersi affords insight into areas of the modern psyche that must still be buried in the most civilized souls. His joie de vivre, his non-judgmental approach to other cultures, and his "addiction to curiosity" are infectious.

What the reader must decide is whether it's worth hacking through the flowery schmaltz and braying machismo , past the rhapsodic self-revelation and the ditzy pop psychology, in order to share in those moments when Gersi's heartfelt primitive happiness shines through like the rare beams of sunlight that penetrate a rain forest.

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