Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Five best accounts of great African journeys

Tim Jeal is the author of the acclaimed biographies Livingstone, Baden-Powell, and Stanley, each selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He was selected as the winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

His latest book is Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure.

One of Jeal's five best accounts of great African journeys, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo
by Redmond O'Hanlon (1996)

If you love books by famous explorers and have a masochistic yearning to write up your own historic trek, it's tough now that there is so little left to discover. But a book about a great journey is still possible if you possess the skills of an outstanding travel writer and a major novelist, along with the courage of a red-blooded Victorian. Redmond O'Hanlon has all the above and erudition too. His tragicomic masterpiece, "No Mercy," brilliantly chronicles his predictably doomed quest to locate not a river's source but a leftover dinosaur allegedly living in a remote Congolese lake. After hypnotic portrayals of his traveling companions and endangered animals, including the infant gorilla he adopts and falls in love with ("his dark brown eyes were milky-white at the edges, the black skin in the middle of his low forehead was furrowed with three vertically curved worry lines"), Mr. O'Hanlon, by then ill and disoriented, dramatizes the struggle in his head between different versions of reality (Western science versus the African sorcerer's "logic of a dream"). He describes his own near breakdown in the jungle among rats, driver ants and sweat-drinking bees as he clutches his fetish: a piece of monkey fur wrapped around a child's finger bone.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue