No Mercy

by Redmond O'Hanlon. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. 462 pages, $27.50

Like a modern-day Moby-Dick, Redmond O'Hanlon's No Mercy is a big, sprawling book about a quest by an obsessed, even half-demented man. O'Hanlon is his own Ahab, but instead of a white whale he is searching for mokélé-mbembé, a creature greatly resembling a dinosaur that has been reported for many years to be living in the remote waters of Lake Télé in the Congo. The reports come from pygmies -- traditionally a reliable source. It was information from pygmies, O'Hanlon points out, that led to the "discovery" of the okapi or forest giraffe.

As with Moby-Dick, the journey, not the arrival, matters. The reader who turns the pages looking for the payoff at the end will miss much of what makes this book so fascinating. No Mercy is a funny and harrowing adventure story, a brutally honest self-exploration, and a rich account of a little-known part of Africa.

In a 1991 essay in the quarterly journal Transition, Charles Sugnet held up Redmond O'Hanlon as an example of the kind of travel writer featured in the literary magazine Granta: a neocolonial adventurer, white and male, who sets off to the darker continents equipped with pith helmet, to report back on the customs of the natives. The Granta traveler, Sugnet argued, is a bemused observer with no personal or political stake in the places he visits -- a dilettante, a seeker after the exotic.

O'Hanlon, whose previous books describe perilous journeys to Borneo and the Amazon, seems at first to fit this picture all too well. O'Hanlon is an academic as well as an adventurer, specializing in the work of Charles Darwin and other 19th century explorers and scientists, and he arrives in Africa with guidebooks if not pith helmet in hand. No Mercy is peppered with excerpts from H.M. Stanley, André Gide, and Paul du Chaillu (the first European to meet a pygmy), and with deft descriptions of the birds and butterflies O'Hanlon encounters.

Accompanied by Marcellin Agnagna, a moody Congolese scientist, and by his friend Lary Shaffer, a game though foulmouthed professor from upstate New York, O'Hanlon journeys upriver on a hideously overcrowded boat, undertakes an arduous looping reconnaissance of the territory north of Lake Télé, then (without Shaffer, who has bailed out by now) forges on to Lake Télé itself. For this journey, like his others, O'Hanlon has chosen a region of the world that has been minimally affected by "Western civilization" and that therefore offers the closest possible approximation to the experience of the 19th century explorers: in this case, mud huts, spears, pygmies, and sorcery in the land of the River Congo. The phrase "heart of darkness" is almost unavoidable.

Where O'Hanlon transcends the neocolonialist stereotype is in his compassion: a compassion so deep and unsettling that it eventually threatens to unseat his reason.

A dignified, middle-aged man, with a thin mustache and beard, stood behind Bague, wearing nothing but a once-white loincloth, encrusted with dirt -- two filthy squares of cotton, front and back, tied to a string round his waist.... Just above his pubis was an open ulcer, a raised, black, shiny mound of infection, four inches across. The pink inner sides of the pit, one and a half inches deep, moved slightly as he breathed....

Lary drew a tube of Savlon, a bandage and a safety-pin from his pocket. "We're out of dressings," he said, his voice constricted. "You gave them all away, in Manfouété. Yaws." And, "Here, you do it," he said. Lary was crying. He was silently crying: big, real tears ran down his cheeks, into his beard.... The hole smelt of rotten fish. I filled it with Savlon, unrolled the bandage round the man's waist and fastened it with the already rusted pin....

"He'll die," said Marcellin. "He'll die in three weeks."

Toward the end of the journey, perhaps frustrated at how little he can do for the people, O'Hanlon adopts a baby gorilla, cradling it, talking to it, even sleeping with it like a new mother.

The title No Mercy has an obvious application to the unrelenting poverty, fear, and violence O'Hanlon encounters in the Congo, but his companions make it plain that it also applies to the comfortable Western world that has caused so many of Africa's problems. "Really, the whites are terrible," says Marcellin. "They brought the guns here and now they say don't kill your wildlife. They're cruel once minute, sentimental the next." O'Hanlon appears to accept the point, but by the end of the book -- sick, exhausted, impoverished, emotionally raw, and dependent on an African fetish he has carried for most of the journey -- he seems more a victim of the Congo than a victimizer.

Published in the Harvard Post, March 6, 1998.