No Mercy by Redmond O’Hanlon

Alfred A. Knopf 1997 462 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


After mixing it up with deadly natives over a rhinoceros in Into the Heart of Borneo, eating a monkey’s eyeball in In Trouble Again, Redmond O’Hanlon is back. On his third published journey, bespectacled and beleaguered, O’Hanlon has tackled the Republic of the Congo, and what he experienced is not pretty.

O’Hanlon’s nominal occasion for visiting darkest Africa is to search for the fabled surviving African dinosaur, mokélé-mbembé, "a small sauropod from the Cretaceous," which purportedly lives around Lake Télé. His other goal is to sight "the bird of birds … the Pennant-winged nightjar." Accompanied by Lary Shaffer, animal specialist and "the emphatically rational Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York," O’Hanlon arrives in Brazzaville to seek out Marcellin Agnagna. Marcellin, multilingual, educated in Cuba, and deeply superstitious, is an expert on crocodiles and one of the few men to have visited Lake Télé and returned alive.

After paying off several government officials of the deeply impoverished country, they set out, accompanied by several of Marcellin’s relatives. They travel up the Congo River on a huge steamer that effectively functions as a complete African community, which O’Hanlon renders in Conradian detail. Riding in unsanitary, bug-infested first class, they arrive at Impfondo. There they begin a journey in dugouts and on foot, through jungle and swamp, to make a circuit of the area inhabited by Bantu and Pygmies, and then, following the departure of Shaffer, to the murderous village of Boha, near Lake Télé.

Like O’Hanlon’s previous books, this one combines horror with hilarity. He guides the reader with a you-are-there narrative, rubbing one’s nose in an environment whose principal terror is its lack of sanitation. Quoting C. D. Darlington, O’Hanlon notes that, "’Africa, the oldest home of man, is the home of the most dangerous of man’s diseases.’ And [Darlington] was only thinking of polio, diphtheria, encephalitis I and II, leprosy, yellow fever, pneumonia, bilharzia, sleeping sickness, gonorrhoea and malaria. Which put me in mind of the Congo floor maggot." The learned and extensive disquisition on the Congo floor maggot will be saved for the more adventurous readers.

Schaffer, swiftly losing his psychological balance, claims that, "I really feel that I have been away from Plattsburgh for many years. That I have not talked to anyone sensible since God was a boy." He spends his days dreaming of BLTs; his girlfriend, the most beautiful woman in North America; and going into a Grand Union grocery to seek out the ingredients for a turkey sandwich.

Of O’Hanlon, he notes, "But we’re in the nineteenth century, aren’t we? You love all that, don’t you? You should’ve been born 150 years ago. Bearers and paddlers and those white Brit hats like a bra-cup stuck on your head."

For protection, O’Hanlon acquires a fetish from a local sorcerer, who tells him the fetish "contains the finger of a child. The spirit of this child will protect you." Aswirl among people who claim to put curses on their enemies, and turn into leopards at night to hunt, O’Hanlon soldiers on after Lary’s departure, seeking a stabilizing psychological balance between his scientific outlook and the demonstrable effectiveness of the local sorcerers. Following an army ant attack, following death threats lodged against Marcellin, following the collapse of any intestinal control, they reach Lake Télé.

Like all good travel books, we learn many things about the natural world. We learn that ants are "one-third of all the animal biomass in a rain forest" and witness them devour a live chicken. We learn that "among birds only the ostrich, the rhea, the emu and the cassowary, the tinamous ducks and screamers have a penis," and other fascinating information that would spark many an invitation to leave the cocktail party early.

Better than a score of learned treatises, O’Hanlon’s book offers a local’s perspective on environmental protection, and how our own precious attitudes result from as much ignorance as the natives’. As Marcellin says, with disgust, "Really, the whites are terrible. They brought the guns here and now they say don’t kill your wildlife. They’re cruel one minute, sentimental the next." Of his countrymen, Marcellin claims, "We live well here. Our mothers lived well. Our grandmothers lived well. They taught us what to do. We know what to do. We obey the spirits. We respect this place. It belongs to us. It belongs to our ancestors. And to no one else. No one at all."

One of the more fascinating expositions in the book concerns the relationship between the Bantu and the Pygmies. Only recently have the Pygmies been recognized as human beings by other Congolese tribes, and O’Hanlon’s account of the curious relationship of the Pygmies to other groups—at times their slaves, and at times functioning in invaluable symbiosis—forms a casual, but revealing ethnographic study in itself.

We should treasure the existence of Redmond O’Hanlon: he’s the guy with the chutzpah we lack, the guy whose ready to charge headlong up the Oubangui River without any antivenin; he’s the guy who walks around for five days in clothing soaked in baby gorilla diarrhea because he doesn’t want to scare the baby by leaving it alone; he’s the guy who, after a month in the terrifying jungle, begs his guide to accompany him to another uncharted, evil-spirit-infested, python-ridden swamp. He’s the guy who does all these things so we won’t have to.

This is a spectacular, memorable, informative, deeply felt book. Squirm and laugh. Shudder and learn. Read No Mercy.