No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo


Lit with humor, full of African birdsong and told with great narrative force, No Mercy is the magnum opus of "probably the finest writer of travel books in the English language,"  as Bill Bryson wrote in Outside, "and certainly the most daring."  

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, ...

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Lit with humor, full of African birdsong and told with great narrative force, No Mercy is the magnum opus of "probably the finest writer of travel books in the English language,"  as Bill Bryson wrote in Outside, "and certainly the most daring."  

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 forest elephants. But as he was repeatedly warned, the night belongs to Africa, and threats both natural (cobras, crocodiles, lethal insects) and supernatural (from all-powerful sorcerers to Samalé, a beast whose three-clawed hands rip you across the back) make this a saga of much fear and trembling. Omnipresent too are ecological depredations, political and tribal brutality, terrible illness and unnecessary suffering among the forest pygmies, and an appalling waste of human life throughout this little-explored region.

An elegant, disturbing and deeply compassionate evocation of a vanishing world, extraordinary in its depth, scope and range of characters, No Mercy is destined to become a landmark work of travel, adventure and natural history. A quest for the meaning of magic and the purpose of religion, and a celebration of the comforts and mysteries of science, it is also—and above all—a powerful guide to the humanity that prevails even in the very heart of darkness.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Misadventures in the Jungle The British travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon, a big, bearded, hearty fellow, once appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" and stupefied Dave by rambling incoherently but volubly about "the Chatwin thing" (he meant the London funeral of writer Bruce Chatwin), his own jungle adventures, and to Dave's visible horror, the little beast in Amazon waters that swims up your urethra and then.... But never mind that. He capped off his visit by drawing from his pocket something more repulsive than even Penn and Teller usually produce. A big hearty fellow, as I say, and he's banged around some of the world's most difficult places for years now. I've reviewed each of his books for various newspapers as they came along, and I've liked them a lot. I like O'Hanlon. I like him but I don't think I want to travel with him. His first book, Into the Heart of Borneo, needed no subtitle. It chronicled the adventures, as hilarious as they are harrowing, of O'Hanlon and (of all people) his good buddy, the very fine poet James Fenton, on a lengthy and dangerous river journey into the jungle interior of Borneo. Borneo, rather surprisingly, survived. Not satisfied yet — and not dead yet — O'Hanlon then took on the Amazon rainforest, recording that journey in In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon. That book probably has a higher mud content than any equivalent travel account. He survived mud, flood, insect pests, and piranhas, and his story made me laugh so hard that I was willing to forgive his lack ofpreparation andhis apparent ignorance of the fact that his clumsy banging around in the forest put him in constant mortal danger. Eventually he emerged from the forest, and, as much to his own surprise as the reader's, he was scratched and scarred but still very much alive and ticking. So off he went again. No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo, recently reissued in paperback, chronicles his latest adventure, though "misadventure" might be a more appropriate word. Looked at one way, No Mercy is a hilarious account of inadequate preparation and an excess of dangerous bumbling about in the jungle, all in the service of a mad quest to find a mythical beast, the legendary dinosaur of Lake Tele. The only thing he really does right is bring along lots of booze and butts to use as bribes. Looked at another way, however, No Mercy is a classic account of a civilized (well, all right, semi-civilized) man's journey into the green unknown. The pattern for such books was set in the 19th century, and it's just as valid and powerful as it was then. And clearly, O'Hanlon wanted to stress this element, because the book itself is handsomely decorated with fascinating illustrations from earlier travel narratives as well as many of his own photos, and it has a lengthy and valuable bibliography. It's the vivid interplay of present humor and homage to the past that makes O'Hanlon's books so special. He's definitely on my A-list. —Alan Ryan
Stephanie Zacharek

There's a reason Redmond O'Hanlon is one of the finest travel writers around. Although his laserlike powers of observation and knack for telling a rip-roaring story have something to do with it, the thing that seals the deal is his complete willingness to cast himself as the straight man. He's the straightest straight guy around in No Mercy, which details the journey he made to a remote lake in the Congo, ostensibly in search of a mythical dinosaurlike creature that lives there, with a biologist friend and a coterie of guides and hired servants.

O'Hanlon isn't just your standard-issue brainy skeptic who, lo and behold, finds himself humbled by the mysteries he discovers in an untamed world. An experienced explorer -- one of his previous books, In Trouble Again, details an adventure in the Amazon -- he knows what to bring along on a trip: the proper tools and medications, plenty of toilet paper and liquor and cigarettes to give as gifts to people whose help he needs. But beyond that, he's so open to all kinds of wonder that he sometimes seems like an enthusiastic school kid on a field trip, and that's what makes No Mercy so engaging.

O'Hanlon writes about the people he meets as if he realizes he's only able to scratch the surface of their complexity. He never comes close to condescending to them: He doesn't laugh at their dependence on fetishes and their fear of sorcerers and murderous ghost creatures, and he makes sure the reader doesn't laugh, either. In describing the flora and fauna of the Congo, he never adopts that tired, emotionless Mr. Science Guy persona. When he spots a frightened mother gorilla, he (understandably) turns to mush: "She sat in a high fork of the tree, plainly visible, and through the binoculars I looked straight into her shiny black face -- at her averted eyes beneath the big protruding brow, her squat nose, the two linked horseshoes of her nostrils, her wide thin lips -- she seemed extraordinarily human; I was seized with an absurd desire to hold her hand, to tell her that it was all right." In the book's finest section, O'Hanlon describes how he acted as a surrogate mother to a baby gorilla someone had given him. He kisses the top of its head and tries to explain Freudian theory to it as a way of illuminating the ways of the world.

Ultimately, No Mercy works because O'Hanlon recognizes that he's hardly the most interesting guy in his own book. That honor goes to Lary Shaffer, a biologist from Plattsburgh, N.Y., and O'Hanlon's companion through the first two-thirds of the story. When the two spot what they think is a flying squirrel, O'Hanlon starts fishing around in a guidebook to make sure he's identifying it correctly. While his nose is buried in the book, the squirrel takes a magnificent flying leap. "'Redso,' said Lary, putting a hand on my arm, 'did your mother never tell you? You can't learn everything from books ... You got to look around!'" Of course, O'Hanlon looks around plenty. But what makes him so likable is that he can be a real putz -- and he's not afraid to admit it. -- Salon

Library Journal
O'Hanlon's current driving passion-after journeying among the Amazon's headhunters in his most recent In Trouble Again (Random, 1990) is to catch a glimpse of the African version of the Loch Ness monster: the legendary Mokl-mbembe dinosaur residing in the unreachable depths of Lake Tl, deep in the northern Congo forests. Intrepid-or merely insensible to pain-O'Hanlon ventures forth, armed with antivenom serums and innumerable medicines against alarmingly resistant diseases; bribes for officials of the Marxist People's Republic of the Congo; presents for the Pygmies he hopes to find; a crusty scientist companion, Larry Shaffer, from Plattsburgh, New York; and volumes of birding guides and H.M. Stanley's chronicles of travels into Africa before him. Neither hostile local chiefs nor an army of skin-crawling bedevilments will thwart our O'Hanlon from his goal. His account is minute and ironical, given lively relief by Shaffer's gallows humor. It offers compelling reading, for seasoned travelers and couch potatoes alike, and includes an excellent bibliography of the rich history, wildlife, and exploration of the Congo. Highly recommended.-Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Beset by bedbugs, tsetse flies, venal sorcerers, and nettlesome Marxist functionaries, O'Hanlon (In Trouble Again, 1989, etc.) journeys far upriver in the Congo to discover the truth about a prehistoric beast rumored to live deep within the forest.

An odd retinue—including a sex-starved Congolese government naturalist, a humorously foul-mouthed and caustic American specialist in animal behavior, and a number of good-natured pygmies—accompanies the intrepid O'Hanlon on this twisted but mirthful Conradian adventure. Subsisting principally on a diet of manioc with the odd dish of monkey meat thrown in, O'Hanlon and his friend, Lary Shaffer (the animal behaviorist), are repeatedly exposed to gastrointestinal discomfort and must endure such other jungle delights as ferocious ants (a malignant swarm of driver ants actually eats one of the travelers' chickens), pythons, and angry chimpanzees. In each village they pass through, they must placate sorcerers or pay off local chiefs. Too often O'Hanlon encounters disease and death; in one chilling episode, he witnesses a boy's drowning in the Congo River, to the consternation of none but the two Westerners. Marcellin, the guide who seems to know a woman in every port, shrewdly steers a protesting O'Hanlon through this strange human and botanical landscape, but even an educated African is not immune to the rules of this spirit-based world. Indeed, by the end of his narrative, O'Hanlon himself, forever stroking a fetish given him by a sorcerer, has gone somewhat native—though not irrevocably, one would guess. O'Hanlon's staggering knowledge of the region's flora and fauna, in addition to his considerable descriptive skills, adds a further dimension to this casually wacky (and occasionally very sobering) account.

As travel yarn, social commentary, zoological handbook, and snappy satire, O'Hanlon's book resists easy categorization. While some readers might wish O'Hanlon had controlled his more outré rumblings, this is definitely a trip worth taking.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679737322
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1998
  • Series: Vintage Departures Series
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 447,767
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 1.18 (d)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2003

    Brandon Nesbits review of No Mercy

    I read the book No Mercy, by Redmond 0¿Hanlon. I picked out this book because I really enjoy traveling and the outdoors. This book seemed to fit both these categories perfectly. And I as I read it, it fulfilled my expectations as being not only a great travel novel, but as well as having countless amounts of information about animals, plants, and all kinds of other nature type things. At first I really liked the book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it and not only learning from it, but also imagining the situations they were in, in my imagination. I found this book not only to be a challenging book to read but also an entertaining one. As the author, Redmond O¿Hanlon and his friend from the United States, Larry, take you on a gut-wrenching and mind-boggling journey through the Congo. They tell of their encounters with the locals of the country as well as with the local animals and deadly insects and reptiles in the Congo. You learn about all kinds of different traditions and beliefs the locals have. There are stories of ghosts and encounters with real sorceress who live in the forest. They run into the Pygmies who are people that live deeper in the forest than anyone else. As Redmond and Larry take you through their real-life Journey through the Congo that lasted six months, hundreds of miles of river, and hundreds of more miles of walking through the forest your outlook on our life here and what those people have to live through will change forever. I enjoyed this book while I read it and it is greatly informative. If you are looking for a book to learn about the Congo, this is probably the best book out there. However if you are just looking for something to read in your spare time I would not suggest this book. It was a hard book to read because if the amount of different language references and having to understand different customs. The ending somewhat disappointed me as well. But you will have to read to find out why. All in all I thought this was a good book and for the most part enjoyed reading it. No Mercy by Redmond O¿Hanlon is a book you will love if you are into a travel style of writing, but if your not you will probably have quite a difficult time finishing it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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