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Books to Go

No Mercy in the Heart of Africa

September 28, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NO MERCY: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo by Redmond O'Hanlon (Knopf, $27.50, photographs, maps).

Dense, dark, dreamy--nightmarishly dreamy--the Congo River is the landscape of Joseph Conrad. From what I've read and from my own visits to West Africa, not much has changed since publication of the 1902 story "Heart of Darkness." Except, perhaps, for the worst politically.

So I overlooked Redmond O'Hanlon's 450-page contemporary account of his journey up the Congo when it crossed my desk a few weeks ago. Hadn't Conrad said it all? Aren't there already too many mediocre books in this adventure-travel genre? Didn't the jacket say O'Hanlon was out to find a living dinosaur, for heaven's sake? An attentive reader pointed out my mistake, and I'm grateful.

For this is a book as weirdly wonderful, as frightful and unsettling, as mysterious and ultimately as consuming as the vast jungle of the Congo itself. It is dense and dreamy writing, fanciful and hallucinatory. It's a book that intrudes like the sweats of malaria fever. It is vivid, restless, a tossing of what is real with what might be imagined: apes biting your ears and tsetse flies biting your legs; traveling among sorcerers and bureaucrats, Bantus and Pygmies, in the company of an oversexed Congolese guide.

O'Hanlon is a naturalist, yet what he writes is almost supernatural in its force. He hits us like a photojournalist: straight in the eye. He goes low where serpents slither and maggots crawl and uses that to reach up and jab us in the gut. Finally, he raps us on the skull, disturbing our self-complacent understanding of the world, the people of other nations who are our kin and how we travel among them. The title describes what O'Hanlon has in store for readers: no mercy. You're not likely to forget it.

HUNTING WITH THE MOON: The Lions of Savuti by Dereck Joubert, photographs by Beverly Joubert (National Geographic, $40).

HIMALAYAN CLIMBER: A Lifetime's Quest to the World's Greater Ranges by Doug Scott (Sierra Club, $30, paperback, photographs).

By coincidence, this month brings two other superlative books about far-off outdoor adventure. Both are coffee-table presentation volumes. And they stand leagues above the ordinary.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert are not the first to venture to Africa and fall under the spell of lions. They are not the first to devote years of study or to emerge with stories that are breathtaking and heartbreaking. But no one has done it better. And surely no one has opened the night world of lions as they do here.

I have traveled some in lion country myself, and even walked their range behind an African tracker with a spear in his trembling hand. There's no feeling like it. The highest compliment I can pay the Jouberts is that while reading Dereck's account of the couple's 14 years in Botswana and feasting on Beverly's amazing photographs, I felt the hair stand up on my neck and the ache grow in my heart.

In the fraternity of mountaineers, Doug Scott is one of the greats. He also happens to be a fine photographer. This book is a softcover reissue of his photographs from a quarter-century of climbing the big peaks: Everest, K2, Denali and two dozen others. Scott writes that these are his favorites and "if they stimulate and motivate others to take a step into the unknown, then this book will have been of some value."

Quick trips

THE RICHES OF FRANCE: A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces by Maribeth Clemente (St. Martin's, $19.95, paperback, maps). I suspect this volume will have a robust following. All you have to do is admit to yourself that shopping is why you travel. Then you can let your eyes grow wide at the opportunities inventoried here: food, fabric, fashion, among other things. Frankly, I wish my friends would take a peek. Maybe they would bring back more olive oil and fewer slides.

SLEEPING WITH LITERARY LIONS: The Booklover's Guide to Bed and Breakfasts by Peggy van Hulsteyn (Fulcrum, $16.95, paperback, photographs). This book requires two specialized tastes: a fascination with American writers and a fondness for bed and breakfasts near their U.S. haunts. This is not a bad combination, particularly when you throw in some of the best of the country's bookstores, libraries and literary tours.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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