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No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo Paperback – June 30, 1998
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From the Inside Flap
Redmond O'Hanlon has journeyed among headhunters in deepest Borneo with the poet James Fenton, and amid the most reticent, imperilled and violent tribe in the Amazon Basin with a night-club manager. This, however, is his boldest journey yet. Accompanied by Lary Shaffer--an American friend and animal behaviorist, a man of imperfect health and brave decency--he enters the unmapped swamp-forests of the People's Republic of the Congo, in search of a dinosaur rumored to have survived in a remote prehistoric lake.
The flora and fauna of the Congo are unrivalled, and with matchless passion O'Hanlon describes scores of rare and fascinating animals: eagles and parrots, gorillas and chimpanzees, swamp antelope and
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The book started out very strongly, recounting the vivid first impressions of O'Hanlon and his travel companion Dr. Lary Shaffer in Brazzaville, consulting a feticheuse (a type of fortune teller), negotiating the complex and tangled government bureaucracy, and trying to arrange an expedition into the deep interior. Why go into the jungles of the country, far up the Congo River one may reasonably ask? O'Hanlon wanted to journey to the remote northern forests of the country, meet the Pygmies, journey by dugout boat to the headwaters of the Motaba River, abandon the boats, walk east through a vast and poorly known swamp jungle, and eventually make his way to a very remote lake, Lake Télé, reported home of Mokele-mbembe, a dinosaur reported to be alive today in the Congo. That's all. Well O'Hanlon did at any rate, Shaffer had evidently planned to leave the expedition before O'Hanlon and his future companions set out for Lake Télé. Shaffer, continually reminded O'Hanlon he couldn't believe he was in the Congo to begin with, let alone heading up the Congo and proceeding on foot through a portion of its dense tropical forest.
His expedition plan sounded quite adventurous to me, if not always accepted by government bureaucrats; one asked, "his voice full of hostility, "you have come to investigate some kind of dinosaur? To make fun of us? To mock the African?" Eventually though permission was granted and O'Hanlon, Shaffer, and several other locals set on their way.
Much of the expedition, particularly early on, was quite interesting, if merely just describing what the author saw. His account of traveling on a virtual floating city, the steamer _Impfondo_ with its attached barges was quite vivid, a town that slowly made its way upriver, different areas of the steamer and the attached barges inhabited by different social strata, of men, women, children, people fishing, selling things, trading with people in dugouts that met the boat from various villages along the shore, sometimes trading for a time, other times tying up and journeying with the entire configuration for some ways. People were born on the boat-barge combination, and unfortunately people died as well.
Unlike many travel writers, O'Hanlon was evidently keenly interested in natural history, particularly birds, and never failed to point out fascinating animals he saw and more interestingly provide good descriptions of them and many times some facts about them. He saw hammerkops for instance, "[a] bird with a genus all its own, its place in science almost as mysterious as its role in myth," at one time thought to be related to herons, flamingos, or storks. Many in Africa leave the hammerkop alone, its very name often taboo, believed to be a sorcerer among birds, able to compel birds of other species to come and build its massive nest. He spied the Congo blue-breasted kingfisher, a "freak of a kingfisher," a species that never goes fishing but rather lives in the forest and makes meals of insects, spiders, toads, and millipedes. A huge rodent, an enormous, white-bellied, grey-backed Giant Gambian rat nearly gave him a heart attack one night as it accidentally made his way into his sleeping chambers one night before bounding out in a panic. He was driven out of another hut by a huge mass of driver ants, moving colonies of ants that according to Shaffer can travel in groups twenty-two million strong, much larger than the "mere two million" that number South American army ant swarms. The author also noted interesting plants from time to time, such as the oil-palm, so vital to many in the Congo region, as oil can be obtained from both the flesh of the nut and the seeds, its oil being used for cooking and in making soap and margarine, its sap collected to make ready-made palm wine.
The book's first half was riveting to me and I looked forward to what new sights would greet the expedition as they went further upriver, leaving the _Impfondo_, proceeding on much smaller boats, and eventually on foot. However, at some point, the book really started to bog down for me. More and more the narrative related the sometimes funny, often just tedious fights, complaints, and bickering of his three local companions, which by the end of the book the reader becomes pretty well familiar with. There is Marcellin, educated overseas, a scientist, but clearly frustrated by many aspects of life in Africa, by the burdens of being a "big man," of out of work relatives feeling that the success of one of their own is their success and Marcellin obligated by societal mores to lets his relatives move in, eat his food, and just make themselves at home. He also seemed frustrated by his African companions, complaining that they were clearly uneducated men, but Marcellin by his words and deeds showing that he was very much a part of that culture as well, as like the others he was continually seeking female companionship every night in every village they visited and while scoffing at some supernatural beliefs, such as fetishes, seemed to accept others (when one friend asked how a local sorcerer who could shapechange into an elephant every night might affect his elephant studies, Marcellin appeared to seriously consider the problem). Manou, another companion, was a much more gentle soul, not as brash or as sex-crazed as Marcellin, but even more frustrated as he would never get the education that Marcellin had and anything he owned was taken outright from him by his elders. While these portraits were interesting they tended to take up too much of the book as it neared its end, overshadowing more interesting aspects of the expedition and were sometimes just plain annoying.
O'Hanlon is a naturalist who wrote his doctoral thesis on the changing concepts of nature in English literature and published Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction . He is well versed in both literature and natural sciences. Redmond is highly interested in the birds of Africa and talks about them throughout the book. His goal in visiting the Congo is to trek to Lake Tele and hopefully sight a Mokele M'bembe or a living dinosaur which is reported to live there and which Agnagna has reportedly seen. Perhaps the key element one needs to know about O'hanlon is that while he is gifted and can spin a tale he is also a tad bit manic in a Robin Williams kind of way.
The journey begins in Brazzaville where Redmond and Lary visit a feticheuse who tells their fortune. Here we learn that Lary has multiple sclerosis and has worked hard physically to make himself well. He is a man of great determination. The reader is drawn into to see this from the dual perspectives of Shaffer and O'Hanlon. Shaffer tends to view things with more sceptism and his trip to Africa renews his appreciation for his life in America. O'Hanlon on the other hand is more of a jump head first type of person and doesn't stop to analyse but appreciates every new experience.
With O'Hanlon's appreciation of new experiences we are given great details about the journey up the Congo, but it is also tempered through Shaffer's eyes and comments. His shock and the lack of value of human life, terror when approached by a heavily armed, military man, and disgust with some of the food offered and his fear throught our are palpable.
It is clear that the belief system of the people of the Congo differs vastly from the Western norm. At one point a man when admonished not to kill gorillas, tells O'Hanlon that he is sure that he too eats gorillas in England. Throughout the book there is much talk of curses and spirits and even those who are most educated seem to have some ties to that world.
O'Hanlon himself seems to have some sort of breakdown while in the jungle, but one wonders if it is part of his makeup or because he is so familiar with Conrad's work and wished to create a sort of Heart of Darkness effect of his own.
I loved the book and was amazed by what I learned from it.
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