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White Man's Burden

NO MERCY: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo.\o7 By Redmond O'Hanlon\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf: 462 pp., $27.50\f7

May 18, 1997|WALTER ABISH | Walter Abish is the author of "Alphabetical Africa," "How German Is It" and, most recently, "Eclipse Fever."

Not all that long ago, in what was still a pre-mass travel age, travel writing at its best was marked by an urbane, if impersonal, regard for cultural and societal demarcations. Whether crossing the empty quarter in Arabia or exploring the upper reaches of the Amazon, the writers never thought to mistrust their Western role, authority or ability to understand a thinking often so different from their own. As quasi-cultural emissaries on a mission to retrieve and preserve a foreign past, they largely held back the personal out of a need to conform to convention, as well as out of a fear that the use of the private and intimate might impair their judgment. Not so the present-day crop of writers--many influenced by Ryszard Kapuscinski and the late Bruce Chatwin--who have come to reject an often luminous style in favor of a discordant rawness and substituted the role of civilized go-between for a powerful if occasionally disconcerting in-your-face eclecticism, in which the author's personal life is a revealing factor. The gregarious, self-questioning, self-disparaging Redmond O'Hanlon bears all the earmarks of this group.

His title, "No Mercy," is telling. Classic O'Hanlon, it goes to the core of what is a self-punishing book. O'Hanlon, the indefatigable traveler whose insatiable curiosity impels him to seek out the unknown, the inaccessible, the downright hazardous, is at it again, but by now, on this, his third trip, isn't it time to ask, what is it about the jungle? In "Into the Heart of Borneo" (1985), he recounts his and the poet James Fenton's stay among the headhunters in Borneo; on his next trip "In Trouble Again" (1989), accompanied by a tough, street-wise former manager of a casino, O'Hanlon headed for the Amazon rain forest to look for the ferocious Yanomami. Now, his English cheerfulness undiminished, he has traveled to the Congo, ostensibly in search of the ancient creatures that might yet exist in the vast seemingly changeless primeval jungle in the north. This time a well-meaning American biologist, Lary Shaffer, fulfills the exacting role of sidekick and sounding board. Their chummy, often heated discussions on everything under the sun highlight O'Hanlon's disarming candor and, as alluded to by Shaffer's tart comment: "First off--you'd turn everyone's problems into jokes, to protect yourself," reveal under rambunctious good cheer an equivocal, even guarded, disposition.

In Brazzaville, O'Hanlon and Shaffer first meet with Marcellin Agnagna, a smooth, ambitious biologist trained in Cuba, who is to accompany them to the remote Lake Tele area where, on his prior visit in 1982, he claims to have sighted a sauropod dinosaur in the water by the shore. Many ventures are based on far slimmer evidence.

The precautionary visit by O'Hanlon and Shaffer to a fetisheuse, a kind of African interpreter of messages from the world of the spirits, sets the tone for the expedition. O'Hanlon is determined not to provoke the gods or, for that matter, the ire of the Pygmies they'll encounter, to whom the Mokele-mbembe, the only surviving descendant of the ancient dinosaur, is a near-mythical beast, something to be imagined, revered and feared.

"Then tell me--what is it you really want?" the perspicacious fetisheuse says to O'Hanlon, as if intuiting his ambivalence and skepticism. "You don't speak your desires. You think them." Then, intuitively, she singles out Shaffer, warning him that he'll not survive if he stays a day more than two months in the primeval forest of that region.

With Agnagna and his two bumbling African assistants on the team, they now are, at least on paper, an official expedition. The steamer that will take them upriver as far as Impfondo has in tow dozens of barges on which hundreds of villagers are encamped. "They will sleep in the open for two weeks, maybe three. Some of them will die. One or two of the very young children will roll over in their sleep and disappear down the gaps into the river. It always happens." Agnagna's matter-of-fact description, a sobering introduction to the Congo, is made all the more emphatic when O'Hanlon, idly scanning the river through his binoculars, spots a young boatman, nearly drowning, as he is being swept away by the powerful current. O'Hanlon yells out to Agnagna to alert the captain. Agnagna rebukes him: "If you make a fuss like that every time someone dies, my friend, you won't last. You'd be wasting my time. We won't complete our mission."

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