Magazine article The Spectator

Close Focus on Africa

Magazine article The Spectator

Close Focus on Africa

Article excerpt

This book describes a perfectly awful journey: the horrors of African travel load each page. But from the moment O'Hanlon thrusts his arm through yours and sets off with jaunty eagerness to catch the ferry up the Congo, you are carried along by his exuberant garrulity. He talks in his sleep, in reveries, in daydreams, he even talks for 15 pages to a baby gorilla. His character wins sympathy, affection. Beastly as the trip is, one reads of its tortures with a gentle smile, as if listening to a fairy story.

The purpose of the journey was that O'Hanlon should see for himself the birds and beasts of central Africa which were already familiar to him from his books. But it is also a quest, a probe into the heart of darkness to find the secret, forest-girdled stretch of water in which dwells a legend, to the Africans known by sight as Mokeleembembe, known by hearsay to Europeans (and to Africans who want to make it a tourist attraction) as the last dinosaur.

A novelist wishing to represent diverse points of view couldn't have invented a Narrenschiff whose crew embodies national characteristics more decidedly than do Mr O'Hanlon and his companions. There is the American, indignant at the backsliding state of Africa, who is forever suggesting a practical, mechanistic cure for every ill; there is the African, a government official in charge of the journey, whose origins are at war with his aspirations, part of him wishing to exploit the natural resources of his country, part of him fearing the sorcery which meddling with those natural resources has aroused against him, and there is the European, observant Mr O'Hanlon from Oxford, his mind weighted with the history of the last 20 million years, his pack bulging with reference books from which everything he sees can be identified.

The book depends for its enjoyment very much on O'Hanlon's curiosity and powers of observation. He will describe a broad general scene - the floating city of barges drawn upstream behind the steamer - and then focus attention on a detailed human happening within the large panorama, a boy drowning, a mother serenely feeding and washing her baby, in a way that supplies the reader with all he needs to imagine the scene for himself. He is very exact. An adjective qualifies each noun. A chair is a steel chair, a table is formica-topped.

This takes time. The tension of a confrontational scene is defused by O'Hanlon telling us what everyone was wearing. However hot the pace, he notes down the nictitation of a hen. And at any twinkle of feathers in a jungle tree action is suspended while he looks up its identity in one of his books.

This passion of O'Hanlon's to name every creature that stirred a leaf reminded me of the contest between Adam and Satan to name the beasts of the field, a contest made unequal by God, who whispered in Adam's ear the true name of each creature passing before him, thus saving all but very few from becoming the devil's own creatures. The reference books in O'Hanlon's pack are his god whispering his truth. Whatever he names is rescued from the dark and added to the score; the process pushes out inch by inch a jetty of weightbearing fact into the legendary swamp of unknown Africa. Science exorcises fear. Startled by chimpanzees, he takes cover: `Adult tschegos, I thought reassuringly, giving them a name.' Africa is indifferent, even discouraging. …

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