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On Target by Christian Le Noel

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On Target: History and Hunting in Central Africa: Christian Le Noel.  Limited Edition, signed and numbered.  256 pages, black & white photographs.  Not Indexed.  Trophy Room Books, Box 3041, Agoura, CA 91301.  Copyright, 1999.

History is always a quandary.  It is at once the dust bin of civilization while also the ointment on our need to establish ourselves as having progressed beyond the stone tools of early Homo erectus.  Through the lens of history we collect the indefinable bits of information that ultimately provides us a sense of triumph over evolution’s uncertainty.  That’s why any book of history is important to us—each chapter is a telescopic lens viewing the past.  Sometimes, however, those history books masquerade as an exciting adventure tale that stays in our memory long after the last chapter. 

That’s how I felt after reading Christian Le Noel’s On Target: History and Hunting in Central Africa.  This is a book that can read for historical information or purely a good read for relaxation. 

This is not a newly released book, but one that has maintained itself on the publisher’s book list and is deserving of another, more critical look.  On Target was published by Trophy Room Books in 1999 and I have no idea what the original reviewers wrote, which is just as well as I tend to ignore their comments because many traditional outdoor book reviews are approval stamp rewrites of the book’s dust jacket or press release.

The Autobiographical Novel

Any autobiographical novel will, to some degree, rely on the craft of creative nonfiction, in which the author is a participant and must use techniques of the fiction writer to tell the story.  The danger is that the author will glamorize their role with chest thumping bravado and posturing, dominating and weakening the text’s believability—this doesn’t happen in On Target.  Le Noel is present in the text but in a very conversational tone throughout the story, as if the reader is also a participant in the narrative and the two of them, author and reader, were sharing a campfire and sundowners. 

Le Noel begins his narrative with the place and time of his birth (Normandy, France, December 18, 1938) and, as with many of the world’s post World War II adventurers, his need to see beyond the horizon of the English Channel was fueled by adventure and travelogue novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  His reading must have played a role in his decision at age twenty to join French army.  The Algerian rebellion was in full force and he was sent to fight on the African continent.  After the war he snagged a topographer job in Cameroon and he discovered the world of central Africa.  Armed with a surplus M1 carbine that he was issued to protect himself and his native workers from the misfits that roamed the African bush he also used the rifle to begin providing the workers with fresh meat.  Hunting soon dominated his activities but he had to learn how to hunt in Africa, a transition that was helped along by his tracker. 

‘“Boss, you are a good hunter.  But you hunt like you are in France,” said the tracker one day.  “This is not the way we do it here.”’ (pg. 5)

The lesson took hold and he changed his hunting technique from a French countryside style to the African way and he began evolving into a white hunter.  In his narrative his French romanticism appears in the text when, for example, he compares the experience of facing his first dangerous game animal to a first love:

That was March 1963, five months after arriving in Cameroon.  It seems like yesterday.  That was the first of a number of buffalo I would hunt in Congo, Chad and Central African Republic.  For that reason perhaps it is still the most vivid in my memory.  Like the first love affair in one’s life, the first dangerous animal one meets leaves indelible memories [Italics, mine]. (pg. 8)

When his first employment contract was completed he was hired for a second but before reporting for work he went hunting on the Ngaoundaba Ranch where he met the legendary PH Henri Eyt-Dessus.  The hunt and Eyt-Dessus nudged him farther along the path that would take him to the role of professional hunter. 

This background is important because Le Noel weaves an intriguing narrative of personal history as a PH with the region’s history.  In “Part One” he explains how early twentieth century abuses nearly destroyed Cameroon’s game populations and the successful efforts to counteract these abuses through the Counseil International de la Chasse under the leadership of Henri Eyt-Dessus.

Another side of the African bush is the cheapness of life.  Le Noel doesn’t avoid the gruesome and one story he recounts is the 1974 murder of three buffalo hunters by Cameroon poachers.   He writes of other bush tragedies, which underscores the reality that in the poacher’s war against wildlife human life is expendable.

The History of Chad

Too often, when non-Africans think of Africa, the focus is on the region south of the equatorial belt.  Recent events have thrust the northern region into greater international consciousness.  Chad’s shared borders with Libya and Sudan combined with the nation’s own internal political struggles are maintaining constant national destabilization and impoverishment of the general population.  One effect of this ongoing unrest is a constant threat to wildlife populations.  The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset observed in Meditations On Hunting (Wilderness Adventures Press™ edition, 1995) that one of the first rights reclaimed by an oppressed people is the hunt, “In all revolutions, the first thing that the “people” have done was to jump over the fences of the preserves or to tear them down, and in the name of social justice pursue the hare, the partridge” (40).  A variation of this occurred in Chad during the civil wars when roving bands of heavily armed soldiers, regular and irregular, slaughtered wildlife when they were not fighting each other.  But hunting, in particular the hunting of African big game, has a way of weathering all but the most brutal storms and the years of simmering unrest did not stop a constant stream of tourist hunters flowing in and out of Chad.  Le Noel chronicles this safari industry, explaining how the PHs kept a wary eye on the politics and were keenly aware that “something” was about to spill out of the country’s population and into the safari industry.  Few authors can match Le Noel’s power of understatement; his recounting of an early, savage attack on a medical team was a grim harbinger of what was to come to the troubled region.

Before Le Noel and his wife were forced out of Chad he had developed a name for himself as a professional hunter so that when he reached the Central African Republic he was able to land on his feet and continue in his career.  The CAR years are the foundation for two-thirds of On Target, and the entire text is a richly woven tapestry of characters that includes clients, guides, professional hunters and government officials, both corrupt and honest. 

Galen L. Geer is a former United States Marine Drill Instructor and Vietnam veteran. A professional outdoor hunting, shooting and gun writer, he published 2000 magazine articles. He has been a contributing editor to Soldier of Fortune magazine for thirty years and is the author of seven books.

Throughout my reading of On Target I was never able to decide whether the book is only as autobiographical account of the author’s adventures or it is more an historical account of the characters who drifted through the region.  In the end, I decided what is truly important is the book accomplishes something important for the Africaphile—it opens up a region that for many of us has remained obscure.  Today, with the clash between radical religious zealots and governments threatening more violence in this region of Africa, it behooves the thinking person to know the region’s history.  Le Noel has, I believe, skillfully blended this history with his own to provide every reader with an insight that cannot be overstated.

Readers may contact the author at: ggeerauthor@yahoo.com and visit his blog, The Thinking Hunter at http://galengeer.blogspot.com .


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• On Target by Christian Le Noel •
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