Life in darkest O'Hanlonia

Charles Nicholl has a brain-mangling time in the Congo; Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18

From the first words of the first sentence we are there. "In her hut in Poto-Poto, the poor quarter of Brazzaville, the feticheuse, smiling at us, knelt on the floor...."

It is strange but somehow familiar. We are a long way from home, in this sweaty part of town with a name like an African drumbeat. There is this potentially malevolent but faintly alluring figure, the feticheuse, and there is "us", for whom or to whom she is about to do something. The night is hot and the possibilities are endless, but may well include hapless ingestions of some brain-mangling local hallucinogen, and an encounter with giant crotch-burrowing parasites hitherto unknown to science. There's no doubt about it - we're back in darkest O'Hanlonia again...

To say that Congo Journey is typical Redmond O'Hanlon is, of course, a thorough recommendation. One could even say, though it is his only his third travel book, that it is "classic" O'Hanlon. His voice - that particular personal presence in the text which is the key to good travel-writing, far more than intrepidity and exotic locations - is unmistakeable. For the fickle reader, however, "classic" might soon start to mean "same old", and one may be expecting something a bit different next time.

Into the Heart of Borneo (1984) found Redmond O'Hanlon paddling up the rivers of Sarawak in the company of poet James Fenton. In In Trouble Again (1988) he hacked through the jungles of southern Venezuela with a night- club owner called Simon. This time the expedition leads into the equatorial swamp-forests of the Congo, a place of pygmies and gorillas, of bad magic on a bad stomach. The role of the travelling companion who on second thoughts maybe wasn't such a good idea is played by a gruffly empirical American psychologist, Professor Lary Shaffer. As before, O'Hanlon uses the small personal tensions of the situation as a comic counterpart to the larger difficulties and dangers of the expedition.

The quasi-scientific (or "crypto-biological") goal of their journey is to get a sighting of the legendary Congo dinosaur (or "sauropod") known as Mokele-mbembe. This creature is supposed to inhabit Lake Tele, in the extreme north of the Congo Republic; a local biologist, Marcellin Agnagna, claims to have seen it.

This also is classic O'Hanlon, who has perfected this guise of the slightly unhinged professor, with his floppy sunhat and his fogged-up spectacles and his capacious Bergen back-pack crammed with well-thumbed tomes like Bannerman's Birds of Tropical West Africa. He has something of the great 19th century explorer-naturalists like Charles Waterton about him, and indeed his first published book, Charles Darwin and Joseph Conrad (1984) was a scholarly study of the interplay of scientific thought and travel literature in the late Victorian era.

He is also a passionate ornithologist, and his journey has a secondary goal, fortunately - to see the rare, pennant-winged nightjar which at the age of eleven he "thought the oddest, the most desirable bird in the air." The book is enriched throughout by his knowledge of African flora and fauna, and by the exotic plumages of the sunbirds, hornbills, fishing eagles, and so forth, which he observes with such relish.

There is also in Redmond O'Hanlon, and this is a clue to the great charm of his writing, an emotional channel between his childhood and his adult journeying. He got his first taste of Africa from the books in his father's "big dark study", and now the real Africa is entwined with the view from that study window - a Wiltshire vicarage garden, "the yew, the bushes where we played jungles, the huge copper beech, the conker tree, and...a stream where I'd catch minnows in Lucozade bottles baited with bread". Later, his memories of childhood woodlands blur deliriously with the Congo jungle as he sweats through a fever that might just be the fatal falciparum malaria.

This is sometimes funny, because it belongs with his comic sense of the explorer as overgrown schoolboy; of the journey as a series of scrapes ("in trouble again"), or indeed as one of those jungle-games once played in a garden, and now effortfully re-enacted in the last few corners of the world where the grown-up 20th century has not yet intruded.

It is funny and also true - true that the explorer is often a case of "arrested development" (see Melanie Klein's study, Love, Guilt and Reparation and biographies of Burton, Speke, Stanley passim); and true that travelling and childhood are strangely close - everything magnified by unfamiliarity, fringed with the unknown, conducted in languages one doesn't understand.

For all the gung-ho, SAS-kitted machismo of his expeditions, he has that tonic touch of humility and self-mockery which is the essence of travelling.

This book has been six years in the writing, and weighs in at nearly 500 pages. It has a broad, Balzacian sweep, an air of magnum opus. This is remarkable in a genre that tends to the two-dimensional. However, it is also true that the experience of a journey is rather two-dimensional, offering as it does some intensely felt but fragmentary glimpses into other people's lives. In this sense, the novelistic dimension of Congo Journey is in danger of overblowing its material, of becoming rhetorical.

And though I am by no means asking the question unbeloved of travel-writers - the one that begins "Did you really....?" - it is hard to accept that some of the longer, more expositional chunks of dialogue are things that people really said.

In the size of the book, also, one loses something of the irony and obliquity which gave Into the Heart of Borneo its charm - the brevity expressive of the traveller's profound puzzlement, his inability to fill in the spaces between what he experiences.

Here, perhaps, the spaces are too well filled in, but O'Hanlon is a very fine writer as well as a courageous traveller (travel writers may be one or the other but not many are both) and what he brings back from this extraordinary trip is richly entertaining and at times alarming in its brushes with the primaeval.

This is a traveller's yarn de luxe, and it would be churlish to complain if it goes on a bit too long.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project