Paul Theroux’s early novels (Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers) drew on the writer’s years in the Peace Corps, in Malawi, where he began teaching in 1963. These works were generally comic, satiric, even hopeful—not the bleakness about Africa revealed in his most recent novel, The Lower River. When Ellis Hock, the main character in the latest work, contemplates returning to Malabo—the village in Malawi where he taught forty years ago, and after a recent divorce and a closing of his men’s store in Medford, Massachusetts—his random thoughts are nostalgic and, therefore, suspect: “The happiest years of his life…Africa cast a green glow in his memory…the joy he’d known as a young man in Africa.” Moreover—with the nasty divorce behind him—Hock’s expectations are impossible to fulfill: “The Lower River remained in his mind in the way that the notion of home might persist in someone else’s. When all hope is lost and everything is up the wall, he thought, reassuring himself, I can always go back there.”
Before Hock even arrives at Malabo, there are plenty of warnings that the Africa of forty years ago is not what it is today: “None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the Africa of people, not of animals. And that was its oddity, because it looked chewed, bitten, burned, deforested, and dug up. A heard of elephants could eat an acre of trees in a day, leaving behind a mass of trampled and splintered limbs, yet that acre stayed green and grew back. But this human settlement was befouled, the greenery slashed and burned, or dragged away until only dirt and stones remained—a blight, a permanent disfigurement.”
He should have turned around and gone back to Massachusetts. But instead, his American idealism tells him that the people in the village need him the way they needed him forty years ago, about the time of the country’s independence, when he built a school and fell in love with the village and its people. Hock enjoyed life so much that after the two year commitment to the Peace Corps had been fulfilled, he stayed on two more. Only when word arrived that his father was dying did Hock leave, abruptly without really saying goodbye.
Hock’s marriage was so-so, never more than that—never as passionate as the love he had felt for a village girl, named Gala, but been reluctant to seduce. Selling men’s clothing in the store he inherited from his father was not much better, but he endured these things until his wife looked through his email and discovered some playful emails back and forth with several women. So she and their daughter fleeced him, at which point Hock knew he had to return to Malabo.
Even his early days back in Malabo do not deter him, though the school that he built and where he taught has been abandoned. Assisted by the headman, Festus Manyenga, Hoch believes the school can be restored and the village revived. And since he’s brought plenty of money, Hock remains hopeful. But after a couple of weeks—constantly supplying Manyenga with bundles of money—Hock realizes that he “had been asked to be fleeced by simply showing up.” Worse, after his discovery that Gala is still alive and then finally meeting her, she provides him with all he needs to know about the village’s decline: “They will eat your money…. When your money is gone, they will eat you.” The village is so poor, the expectations of the country’s potential greatness so compromised, the poverty of the people in such a remote area so extreme that they are virtually living a hand-to-mouth existence—all these aspects of Malabo’s and Malawi’s decline are so acute that Hock understands that Gala’s predictions are coming true. He’s got to get out of Malabo quickly, black to Blantyre, the country’s capital, and then back to the United States.
This is where The Lower River soars as a narrative. Everyone in Malabo expects money from him, for the simplest little act. Everyone except for Zizi, who is Gala’s sixteen-year-old granddaughter, who has been assigned to cook for Hock, boil his water, wash his clothing. Hock is repeatedly fleeced, charged outrageous sums for insignificant acts by everyone else, but not by Zizi. He finally realizes that Manyenga is holding him a prisoner until the last drop of his livelihood is sucked out of him. Even attempts to escape the village (so remote that no public transportation ever comes there) are unsuccessful. The obsequious Manyenga captures Hock and brings him back. Finally, when Hock has nothing more to offer, Manyenga plans to sell him to three young punks who will take him away and do with him what they want.
There is no humanity in Hock’s Malawi, forty years after his love affair with the country. Before he left Blantyre to travel to Malabo, the American Consul told him, “It’s a failed state.” Worse, the culture has broken down so much—in part because of the devastation of an entire generation by AIDS—that children often run the show. In one of his attempted escapes, Hock ends up in a village of feral children, who would torture him to see his reaction. Their parents have all been killed by AIDS; their actions remind one of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. If he tries to escape, he’s told they will bite him.
The second half of the story replicates Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, without a Marlow to rescue Kurtz. Malabo is Hock’s prison and up until the last few pages it appears—because of the third-person narration—that Hock will die in the village he loved so much forty years earlier. His situation is hopeless. And Paul Theroux (who knows Africa as well as anyone else) even takes a swipe at international donors, rock stars, and rescue workers who helicopter in for food drops and then quickly fly away, washing their hands of what they have seen.
Is all of Africa this bad? No, but the countries that have been successful are few in number and the conditions under which so many Africans live no better—in fact often worse—than they were in the early 1960s when most became independent. My own recent experiences in Zimbabwe confirm everything that Theroux says about Malawi, except that Zimbabwe is worse. If you look at Festus Manyenga as the head of an African state, a dictator who keeps his people totally under his control, you realize that flying into a country in Africa for a quick safari is as deceptive about the realities of the continent as Hock’s memories of the place where he experienced “the happiest days of his life.”
If you have any interest in Africa at all or are simply trying to understand the lives of people in a huge part of the world, then read Paul Theroux’s The Lower River. It’s his best novel in years. The man’s honesty will make you flinch.
Paul Theroux: The Lower River
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 323 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.