review by Gabriel
Before I get to the review of Congo Journey, I should probably make a disclaimer. I’m not the biggest fan of travel writing. To me, even the best of the genre seems like sloppy fiction – undeveloped characters, half-explored themes, loose structure and self-indulgent story telling. People may argue that travel writing is non-fiction, and that these issues come about because the author is recounting actual events in a factual way. But as travel writing is clearly stylised, edited and framed, I think most travel writers would benefit from working into their narratives more elements of fiction, which, after all, have become institutionalised because they make for good story telling. On to the review.
While Congo Journey shares the (perceived) flaws of its genre, it’s a good read. O’Hanlon recounts his journey into the heart of the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, searching for a long-rumoured dinosaur that dwells in the remote Lake Tele. O’Hanlon fashions an exciting narrative of his strange and often dangerous experiences. He tells of a country that is shockingly impoverished, corrupt and lawless, where there is a low value on human life and people are ruled by their superstitions. Through his characters, he explores the tensions between post-colonial countries and those that were colonised; the West and Africa; whites and blacks. He highlights, too, the hypocrisy and patronisation with which Westerners view native beliefs, without considering the illogical nature of their own religion. However, O’Hanlon is a professor of natural history, and he is constantly entranced by the diversity and exoticness of the African wildlife.
O’Hanlon himself is a strange character, who only reveals himself sporadically. When he does express strong emotions of opinions, they come as a surprise, since he is usually a passive observer. He is accompanied on the first half of his journey by his friend, Lary Schafer, an obnoxious American who is inexperienced in travel. As O’Hanlon rarely casts judgment on some of the horrendous things he witnesses, such as a casual death or the effects of a preventable disease, it is left to Shafer to voice many of the typical Western values in a constant stream of fretting and complaining. It doesn’t make him the most likeable character, but he does serve to highlight the differences between the reality of most of the readers and everyday life in the Congo. He also provides much of the humour for the first half of the book. It’s the kind of common travel writing humour that treads a fine line between laughing at the expectations of the travellers, and mocking the host culture itself, and it’s not one I’m entirely comfortable with.
O’Hanlon and Lary are at their most likeable when they are geeking out over some scientific fact. Lary fixates on engineering, and how it could improve the lives of the villagers, while O’Hanlon’s pet obsession is ornithology. He is often distracted from some grim or brutal scene and by an exotic bird he has seen, and will launch into a lengthy and colourful description. I’m not sure if it’s intended to be ironic, but the juxtaposition really highlights the ridiculousness of two middle aged academics traipsing around a third world country, throwing their money around and risking their lives in the name of scientific curiosity. Still, the exhaustive scientific and historical descriptions provide a fascinating context for the narrative, and offer such useful facts as pygmy chimps having sex and average of 1.4 times an hour. Impress your friends at dinner parties.
I actually enjoyed the book more after Lary left, not because he’s an entirely unlikable character, but because it both forces O’Hanlon to express his own opinions more, and causes the central relationship in the novel to become that between O’Hanlon and Marcellin, his local guide. Marcellin embodies many of the tensions in the novel. He is a highly educated African with limited opportunities, who is trying to escape the demands and superstitions of his family. He articulates many of the frustrations of the locals with their plight, and the anger of the Africans at the West. Two members of his extended family, Nze and Manou, also provide contrasting looks at the values in Congolese society, and the attitudes of the less educated class.
It should be obvious how O’Hanlon’s quest for the Congo dinosaur turns out, although it’s a credit to the writer that I found myself wondering if he would find something. In place of an eventful climax, he offers a resolution by revealing the Congolese character’s true attitudes towards the travellers. The reader is left with an enjoyable book, a good example of its genre that seeks to explore some of the more interesting aspects of travel.