Travel literature review: The Fetish Room

The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist by Redmond O'Hanlon & Rudi Rotthier

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Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Lorna Parkes

Redmond O'Hanlon is a minor-league legend in British travel writing. For me, he's top of a sort of B-list of adventurers - not least because he's something of an anti-hero, who appears to bumble his way through the unknown while most of the time probably wishing he could just sit down in one place with a nice cup of tea.

Yet anybody who can brave the uncomfortable truths of jungle life and travel for months on end, recording flora and fauna as he goes, on expeditions such as a hunt for Borneo's lost rhinoceros (Into the Heart of Borneo, 1987) and a mission to find Mokele-mbembe, the alleged Congo sauropod (No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo, 1996) must have his wits about him. The jungle is a wonderful, romanticised heart of darkness, but the realities are very challenging: it's ridiculously tiring and humid; everything gets wet, nothing dries – ever; and you're always accompanied by lots of unwelcome hangers-on ­– mosquitoes, leeches and the rest. You get the picture.

This book, which categorises itself as 'part biography, part musings on biology, nature and life in general', proves that O'Hanlon may actually not have his wits about him. Having now finished the book, I'm less and less certain of it. I'd like to say I'm not surprised, but really, I am. I thought his travel persona was a witty front. I thought the anti-hero was a fictional construct. Now I know it's not.

The opening chapter 'Introduction to Chaos' sets the tone for what's to come – a rapid realisation that O'Hanlon is mired in a rollercoaster world of ups and downs; his biggest struggle is with the jungle within. An Oxford graduate, naturalist and long-time editor on the payroll of The Times Literary Supplement in London, he now sports a hearing aid and his adventuring days may be over. With his biographer Rudi Rotthier in tow, this book sees O'Hanlon revisit places of significance from his childhood, on a road trip around the south of England where the major pitstops are schools, vicarages and even the home of Charles Darwinas well as Britain’s many pubs.

Stories about cruel public-school teachers, beatings from his mother and rejection by his clergyman father, who could not reconcile his son's love of biology with his own love of the church, help to build a picture of O'Hanlon's eccentric personality. The title of the book, The Fetish Room, is a reference to a room in the travel writer's house where he keeps (among other paraphernalia) a jar holding a remnant of charred flesh that belonged to a friend of his who committed suicide some years ago.

Rotthier listens, interjects and records conversations with O’Hanlon over 10 days. Sometimes what transpires comes across as the disjointed, odd ramblings of an old man. At other times, readers will catch a glimpse of the depression that has plagued O’Hanlon for many years. Overall, though, the narrative is surprisingly upbeat and, gratifyingly, as meandering and humorous as O’Hanlon’s travel books.

How much you like this book will depend on what you hope to find within its pages. It's not a travel book, and you won't find any tips on how to survive the jungle or how to get invited on an expedition; nor will you find much to satisfy the budding adventurer who has their eye on getting off the beaten track in Borneo or the Congo.

But it's a great psychological profile of the type of person who would think 'Borneo? An area of primary jungle that nobody has visited since 1926? With a bunch of "cannibals" and a smidgen of SAS training? To find the island’s lost rhinoceros? Why not!' If that interests you, this book will too.

Lorna Parkes is an editor in Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office, a Londoner by birth and a jungle-lover at heart, who followed Redmond O’Hanlon’s trail to Kapit in Borneo in 2010. 

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