Mokélé-Mbembe, being the Faithful Account of a Hazardous Expedition to find the Living African Dinosaur

Anthony Appiah

  • Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon
    Hamish Hamilton, 480 pp, £18.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 241 12768 8

Redmond O’Hanlon’s account of a journey to Borneo, undertaken with the poet James Fenton, was a grand deception, in which the ostensible search for an indigenous rhinoceros on the slopes of a mountain fastness turned out to be so much camouflage. Clues as to what was really happening could be glimpsed in the structure of O’Hanlon’s narrative. Into the Heart of Borneo is a book burdened by its sense of belatedness; every moment is glossed as the repetition of some earlier natural historian’s triumph. Near the beginning, when he first sees Troides brookiana, a bird-wing butterfly, O’Hanlon cites Alfred Russel Wallace’s description of it as ‘one of the most elegant species known’. What he does not see is also carefully itemised, in the words of those earlier heroes whose eyes have gazed on the mysteries: ‘an owl, Glaucidium borneense, “about the size of one’s thumb”, as [Charles] Hose described it, which calls poop-te-poop-poop’; or a tiny hawk, Microhierax, which lays ‘a large white egg about as big as itself’. The book’s very form – the palimpsest of prose from so many predecessors-makes plain one fundamental impulse of the journey: O’Hanlon is on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of those natural historians and explorers who inhabited his doctoral thesis on ‘Changing Scientific Concepts of Nature in the English Novel’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Everywhere he turns he sees the shade of Wallace (The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, with Studies of Man and Nature, 2 vols, 1869) and hears the footpad of Charles Hose (The Field-Book of a Jungle-Wallah, being a Description of Shore, River and Forest Life in Sarawak, 1929). These men are O’Hanlon’s real companions; he reads them by torchlight in his tent; he sees the world through their eyes, and confides in them, as he cannot always do in Fenton.

A second source of this mania for travel in difficult places is more clearly visible in O’Hanlon’s account of his journey up the Amazon, In Trouble Again. It all began, we learn, with an egg collection in his ‘vicarage childhood’. O’Hanlon was one of those boys who set out in life with a long list of fauna they have not seen, checking off each species as they sight it, avidly enlarging their stock of birds-already-seen. The egg collection was begun before he was five; at seven, he received ‘the two volumes of T.A. Coward’s The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, my first proper books’, and persuaded his father to take him to the Natural History Museum in London. There he was struck by ‘all the variety and surprise and difference’ of the guillemot’s eggs.

Perhaps it was that feeling, I now thought, which I had really been searching for – and which I had found – in the primary rain forest in the heart of Borneo, that sudden, passing, incandescent moment when you are not even sure if the something that is flying across the river in front of you is a bat or a bird or a butterfly. And it was that feeling which I vowed to experience again, if I could, in the vaster forests of the northern Amazons.

This sense of the miraculous in nature – and especially in birds – was visible enough in the brilliant descriptions of Borneo: in the Amazon book, O’Hanlon announces the childhood that any moderately intelligent middle-class English reader of Into the Heart of Borneo would have imagined for him. In the forests of Borneo Fenton had suggested that O’Hanlon was out to prove his manhood, but Fenton was wrong: O’Hanlon isn’t proving his manhood, he’s rediscovering that vicarage boyhood.

The real secret of O’Hanlon’s success is that he subverts the conventions of this genre of imperial travel-writing by refusing utterly to take himself seriously. The imperial travellers – the explorers and naturalists – announced the difficulties of their journeys in order to record their triumphs over them. What they saw with their omnivorous eyes, they named ‘properly’ for the first time, in the grand Linnaean manner. And the human indigenes of the forests – the native fauna of the genus Homo sapiens – could be interesting, helpful, loyal, brave, even noble (as well, of course, as savage and stupid). But they were not likely to find the bwana-sahib ridiculous; and if they did, it was clear that this was further evidence of the error of their ways. In O’Hanlon’s world, however, the natives are always amused. When Fenton tries his hand at angling, his wildest cast catches O’Hanlon in the buttocks:

      ‘You are hooked up,’ said James, matter-of-factly. ‘You have a spinner in your bum.’

      There was a weird gurgling jungle sound behind us. Dana, Leon and Inghai were leaning against the boulders. The Iban, when they decide that something is really funny, and know that they are going to laugh for a long time, lie down flat first.

      Dana, Leon and Inghai lay down.

      ‘You should try it with a harpoon!’ shrieked Leon, helpless.

O’ Hanlon’s earlier excursions, it now turns out, were all a splendid prologue to Congo Journey. At last, he has mounted the expedition that always awaited him, up the Congo River – also known as the Zaire – into the real jungle, on the journey that Conrad has taught almost a century of Englishmen to see as the way into Africa’s dark heart. Congo Journey begins with a European cliché of Africa. The opening scene occurs in a ‘hut in Poto-Poto, the poor quarter of Brazzaville’. In this hut, a féticheuse – a woman ‘witch-doctor’ – casts cowrie shells on a raffia mat in an act of divination. What disrupts the cliché is that the divination works. ‘ “One of you,” she said slowly in French, “is very ill, right now.” ’ And she is perfectly correct. For, unknown to O’Hanlon, his companion, Lary Shaffer, professor of psychology at the State University of Plattsburgh, author of a doctoral thesis on ‘The Predation of Crabs by Lesser Black-Backed Gulls’, has multiple sclerosis. Not only that, he has recovered from life as a blind man in a wheelchair by forcing himself to walk again, so that now he swims for 45 minutes a day, and has somehow recovered his sight. O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey is undertaken with a companion who ‘thought I’d rather die in Africa than strip-paint my house in Cornelia Street this summer’.

When it is O’Hanlon’s turn to have his cowries read by the wise woman, he tells her his purpose:

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