A pleasant disorder reigns at Pelican House, the hedgerow-hidden home of Redmond O'Hanlon. Books and magazines are everywhere: stuffed under tables, stacked in unruly piles against chairs, heaped in drifts across the floor. Odd and exotic treasures line the walls. On a shelf near a stuffed pelican is a Maxwell House can containing the charred foot of O'Hanlon's best friend at Oxford, who burned himself to death at 24. On another shelf is a carved wooden totem draped in a sinister red ribbon. "It's a kind of Congolese voodoo doll," O'Hanlon says. "Each knot in the ribbon signifies a successful death." (There are 12 knots.) Reposing atop O'Hanlon's desk is the skull of a howler monkey. Local Amazonian custom dictated that he suck out the monkey's eyes. When he complied, a local groaned, "How revolting! You white men will do anything to be loved."
England's best-loved naturalist and literary traveler has roosted in this quiet corner of Oxfordshire for 20 years. Every so often O'Hanlon grabs some bug spray and flutters off to the jungle. In 1983 it was the Borneo rain forest. In '85 the Amazon basin. Most recently, the swampland of the Congo. Upon his return, the former Oxford University English professor chronicles his adventures in books that marry scholarship and ensemble comedy and leave readers convinced they would rather swallow a monkey's eyeball than follow O'Hanlon one step of the way. His appreciation of suffering borders on the masochistic. "It's part of a particular brand of Anglicanism," he explains. "Unless you're suffering, it can't be real."
Traditionally, British travel writers have written about the peculiarities of peoples who are not British. O'Hanlon transcends the genre with self-deprecation. "The fear of the unknown puts you in a childhood position," he says. "You have to trust your native guides as if they were your parents. Indeed, they are your parents. They look after you, and you hope they love you. In fact, you're absolutely desperate for them to love you."
O'Hanlon, 50, is a large, exuberant and enormously funny man, curious and observant, with thickets of gray hair, a reckless optimism and an undepletable fund of anecdotes. "My aim is to write a structured travel book that's as good as, say, Gogol's Dead Souls," he says. "That's the nearest thing you could call a novel that is also a travel book. I try to produce an intimate portrait of a country with as long a reach as I can."
Raised in a rural vicarage in Wiltshire, O'Hanlon had an epiphany at age four when a mistle thrush dropped half an empty spotted shell at his feet. He still keeps the fragment on display in his fetish room. His father, a onetime missionary in Abyssinia, kept a vast collection of reference books in his study. Though the room was off-limits to young Redmond, he would creep in to sneak peeks at volumes such as The Birds of Tropical West Africa. At 14, he discovered Charles Darwin and abandoned his parents' religion.
Armed with a slim volume on birds and a pair of Wellingtons, he arrived at Oxford University in 1965 with the intention of studying English literature. But the mildly pornographic novel he was writing fell into the wrong hands, and O'Hanlon was kicked out in '67. A year later, married and bent on dedicating his life to Darwin, he inveigled his way back in. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Darwin's influence on Joseph Conrad's fiction and took a post at Oxford teaching English literature. Unfortunately, O'Hanlon unwittingly covered the wrong century, so his students learned practically nothing of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, which they needed to pass their exams. "It never occurred to me that Oxford would enter the 20th century," he says with a small shrug. Canned, he found work as the natural history editor of the London Times Literary Supplement. "At TLS, it didn't matter what century you were dealing with as long as you dealt with it passionately," he recalls. "My greatest triumph was publishing a lengthy treatise on the sex life of the naked mole rat. The rush of pleasure lasted for days."
O'Hanlon is genially digressive both in his conversation and in his routes through the tropics. His career as a travel writer began serendipitously in 1983 when the poet James Fenton, his pal, proposed a snorkeling vacation in Borneo. It didn't work out that way. Instead, the pair set out after a rare rhinoceros, paddling up the Baleh River to Mount Batu Tiban, a primary jungle unexplored by Westerners since 1926. They survived headhunters, wild boar ticks, pit vipers ("fangs like four-inch masonry nails") and a dish of spaghetti that turned out to be parasitic fish worms. The bones of that maiden voyage became O'Hanlon's mock-heroically titled Into the Heart of Borneo. The book ends with a visit to the tribal compound of the Ukits, who call O'Hanlon the Chief of Disco and command him to dance. Tired but eager to please, he improvises a "seven-step wobble"—and starts a dance craze in Borneo.
When O'Hanlon later asked Fenton to accompany him to the Amazon, the poet famously replied, "I would not come with you to High Wycombe." Undaunted, O'Hanlon enlisted the sensationally unsuited Simon Stockton, a manager at a London casino. Their ostensible purpose was to find the Yanomami, the "most violent people on earth." Yet, as detailed in O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again, an even greater potential hazard was the candiru, a toothpick-shaped catfish that follows the scent of urine up a victim's urethra, where it sticks out its spiny fins. "Nothing can be done," wrote O'Hanlon, who rigged up an anticandiru contraption by sewing a tea strainer into the cup of a jockstrap. "The pain, apparently, is spectacular. You must get to a hospital before your bladder bursts." The candiru is most commonly removed by penile amputation.
Stockton abandoned O'Hanlon in mid-expedition. "It's nothing but rain and mosquitoes and the same bloody awful trees and endless rivers and disgusting food," Stockton wailed. "There's no wine and no women and no song and nowhere sensible to s—-." None of this seemed to much bother O'Hanlon, who located and befriended the Yanomami and partook of their hallucinogenic drug yoppo.
For his latest book, No Mercy, O'Hanlon and animal behaviorist Lary Shaffer tramped though the dense and uncharted swamp forest in the Republic of the Congo in 1989. Their stated goal was to observe an iridescent bird (the pennant-winged nightjar) O'Hanlon had read about in his youth and to seek out a kind of African Loch Ness monster (Mok�l�-mbemb�) alleged to be living in remote Lake T�l�. Beset by government bureaucrats, sickened by rancid elephant meat and attacked by armies of driver ants, Shaffer declines O'Hanlon's invitation to accompany him on the journey's final leg. Before they part, the emphatically rational Shaffer writes a note that he asks O'Hanlon to sign: I, Redmond, declare that I am going to the Lake T�l� death trip of my own free will and hereby forgive Lary his escape.