Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, is set in contemporary Malawi. It’s a notable creation, but one that sits oddly in the Theroux oeuvre.
At this point in Theroux’s long and prodigious literary career, each new work necessarily arrives against an established backdrop displaying familiar scenes from the author’s real life—his introduction to the third world through his 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi, his friendship with and painful defriending by V.S. Naipaul, his complex domestic and amatory life, his reinvention and reinvigoration of the travel-writing genre. He is, without question, one of the preeminent travel writers of our time, and his way of reading the otherness of the offshore world has made him popular, famous, and wealthy.
But Theroux is also a successful novelist and short-story writer. He has published more fiction than nonfiction. The Mosquito Coast (1982) is his most celebrated novel, and his hybrid romans à clef, My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996), biofictions, are his most notorious creations, with their teasing recycling of already familiar dramatic episodes in his personal history. His other novels are mainly variants of third-world picaresque—political, psychological, and crime thrillers, and one science-fiction work. Six of the novels have been made into movies.
Few writers, even those as or more prolific than Theroux, have managed to create—through the full range of their works—a voice so unified, so unwavering, so unmistakable. The Theroux persona is smart, irreverent, wry, democratic, honest, undeluded, intimate, American but in a good way, wistful, long-suffering but in a brave way, secular, anticlerical but in a mild way, bold (one book of his was banned in Malawi, another in Singapore). It’s not a mystery that he has generated this persona: his copious travel chronicles are in the first person; naturally, his sharing of personal matters is disarming; and there is in his fiction a remarkable continuity of tone in the authorial identity operating the machinery of the tales told. You are poised to expect a particular voice when you open a book by Paul Theroux. There is an anticipation of seamlessness, call it. But The Lower River confounds.
What happens in The Lower River? On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of misadventure in Africa today. Ellis Hock is an unassuming small businessman making his living in Theroux’s hometown of Medford, Massachusetts. He has a wife and a married daughter. He is sixty-two. The time is the present.
Hock, as the author refers to him (giving a faintly nineteenth-century tonus to the relationship between creator and protagonist), seems to have lived an essentially blameless life. On his father’s death, he has shouldered the responsibility for the family business, a haberdashery. He has enjoyed the small pleasures yielded by this self-employment, such as dressing nattily. The business is in trouble as a consequence of neighborhood decline, but the situation is not yet critical.
Loneliness has been Hock’s companion. We are not given the story of how he became estranged from his wife and daughter, but we see the results. Hock drifts into what appear to be the most forgivable transgressions against his marriage that one could imagine:
Often a woman was looking for a present for her husband, or her father or brother…. In the past eight or ten years he’d asked the likelier ones…“Do we have your email address on file?” As a result he found himself in occasional touch, clarifying, offering suggestions…often adding a personal note, a line or two, mildly flirtatious….This was his early morning activity, on his office computer, when he was alone, feeling small in his solitude…. The harmless whispers soothed him, eased some hunger in his heart, not sex but an obscure yearning. Many women responded in the same spirit: a cheerful word was welcome to them…. But since he met the women only when they came into the store, which was rare, these were safe, no more than inconclusive whispers in the dark…like the breath of rapture.
His wife buys a high-tech new phone for Hock, and accidentally accesses the plaintive record of his demi-flirtations, all of them, even the ones he has thought were deleted. (The phenomenon of married men almost but not quite consummating infidelities surfaces elsewhere in Theroux’s stories as well, most strikingly in the biofictions.) The marriage ends. Hock sells the store. A generous share of the family assets go to his wife. His unpleasant daughter demands a pretestamentary cut of his profits from the sale as a protection against the claim a new wife might make if he should remarry. His life in Medford is at an end.
Over the past thirty-three years Hock’s consciousness has been dominated by acute nostalgia for the only time in his life when he was truly happy, his nearly four years as a Peace Corps teacher of English in the remote Malawian village of Malabo. On impulse, he decides to return there. He will arrive with a valise full of packets of cash in kwachas, the local currency. And he plans additionally to arrange at the American consulate in Blantyre for a delivery of school supplies to the village.
In Malawi, approaching his destination by car, he finds the landscape depressing:
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 herd 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.
It’s worse than could have been imagined in his old village. Everything has gone wrong. The school and the health post are in ruins, abandoned. There is no trace of his years of Peace Corps work. There is almost no one there from his time. Poverty and squalor reign.
Appalled, bewildered, Hock falls into the hands of the village headman, Manyenga, a grandson of an acquaintance of Hock’s from his Peace Corps days. Manyenga, quickly revealed as a villain, allots Hock a derelict hut and a “small girl,” as a servant. An orphan dwarf attaches himself to Hock’s household. The small girl, Zizi, is the granddaughter of an old crush of Hock’s, Gala, now an obese ruin of a woman living nearby. Their love had never been consummated, as she was betrothed to someone else. Zizi’s age is not provided, but she is apparently barely nubile. Hock, toward the end of his coming ordeal, asks Zizi to dance naked for him, which she does, after coating herself ritually with maize flour. Beyond that, nothing sexual happens.
Hock resumes a snake-handling hobby from the old days. Instead of bringing him respect, it generates an unexpected fear and loathing of him. He attempts unsuccessfully to employ captured snakes to guard his cache of kwachas. He finds himself unable to resist the constant solicitations of the villagers for money. Soon enough he realizes that he is in fact under a sort of house arrest. He has no means of communicating with any authority outside the village.
Hock is descending slowly into hell. The stages of his disenchantment and defeat are graphically rendered. Perhaps most bitter for Hock is the mysteriously absolute collective decadence of the villagers (this is a Sena village; the Sena are a real ethnic group):
Alone in Malabo, Hock concluded that the villagers were unlike anyone he knew…. They had changed, regressed drastically in their small subterranean hole in the world through which a river ran as dark as any in classical myth. The villagers on the riverbank did not look like other people, they did not think about the wider world, they did not talk like anyone else—and when they did speak, they didn’t make sense. They didn’t walk like other people, or eat or drink like anyone he’d ever known…. Market day was no longer observed, because there was nothing to sell. Sunday didn’t exist in a place where no one went to church, and the church itself had fallen into ruins.
Even local rituals, which had seemed to him in former times to be no worse than picturesque, have become strangely corrupt and threatening:
The wooden or dead-leaf masks Hock had been shown by Sena elders in the past had an aesthetic appeal, were well made and symmetrical. But these masks, one of shredded plastic, the other of rags, frightened him with their coarse construction, as though they’d been twisted together by angry men in a hurry, using the castoff scraps from a trash heap. They were clumsy, insulting, grotesque, and terrifying for being so badly made.
Hock feints at escape, each effort ending with his being returned to the village, still captive. Bribes get him nothing. In his final and most substantial attempt to escape, across the river, through Mozambique, he is able briefly to bring himself to the attention of European aid workers in the jungle compound of an NGO called Agence Anonyme. They turn him away.
It’s a nadir. This man, once so sartorially proud, is now conducting his life in a state of virtual nakedness. He contracts malaria. Ultimately, with his money gone, he has only one value to Malabo: he can be sold as a hostage to a criminal gang who will attempt to find a buyer for him.
Protocol forbids revealing further detail of Hock’s voyage toward the bottom of things, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. The ending doesn’t shift the essential burden of the story. And from the standpoint of literary stagecraft, it raises questions in the category of plausibility, where it joins other questions. Why did Hock deliberately cut his lines of communication so absolutely in this age of mobile phones (they were in use in the area)? Why was he so foolish with his handling of the sackful of cash he’d brought with him to the village, and anyway, why hadn’t he been divested of it as soon as his captors understood the extent of his helplessness? But readers weigh considerations like this individually, and what we have finally is a relentless tale of suspense adroitly presented. Theroux’s practiced hand in the matter of dialogue and scene-making is strongly in evidence. No one will nod off reading The Lower River.
What sort of story is being told in this novel? Drily and oversimply put, reviewing literary works might be said to involve three central and related tasks. The first is to assess the performance of a fiction as a piece of literary machinery, to estimate the effects it might have, say, on an interested but virgin reader. The second is to reach some tentative conclusion about where the fiction in question stands among works of the same type and aspiration, including past works by the author, and to cast a vote. And the third is to consider—as opposed to how a book works or where it stands in the realm of similar efforts past and present—what the fiction might mean, if anything.
These three tasks are hard to keep separate. And it’s the third task that’s usually the most difficult, because the conclusions reached are contingent, and depressingly often come down to wild guesses or to embarrassing application of the long-discredited intentional fallacy.
Concerning this book, I think enough has been said in praise of the quality of the author’s workmanship. The Lower River may be Paul Theroux’s most unnerving novel, but he would probably agree that it’s not his strongest, or his most richly developed.
As to the second task, locating this book in the terrain where Robert Stone, Somerset Maugham, B. Traven, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, William Boyd, Bob Shacochis, and others too numerous to name have their places, it’s difficult. (Writers seem to keep longing for plots in this terrain despite the rain of flaming arrows falling liberally throughout the area, shot from postcolonial studies enclaves in departments of English the world over.) The Lower River belongs thematically in the vicinity of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down. These novels of the destruction of overcivilized Westerners by contact with the Gorgon cultures of the third world resonate with Theroux’s present book.
We come to the task of asking what this novel means. The Lower River suggests allegory, if not outright parable, about the project of Western aid. The physical descriptions of the major people involved are unusually minimal, and that comports with the business of using them more as types, stand-ins, for particular tendencies, forces, categories of persons. Even the Everymanish hero, Hock, passes before our eyes virtually undescribed physically. (We do know that he enjoys dressing well.) His wife is glanced at only for her state of rage. His daughter, a paragon of unlovely greed, is not described physically at all. Hock is in this story to suffer, and to have his understanding of the world eradicated, and that’s it. All aid organizations are condensed into the one exemplar, Agence Anonyme. Another signpost aimed at allegory or parable: Hock, not a reader, remembers with feeling reading Tolstoy’s parable about the meaning of life, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in his Arcadian Peace Corps days in Malabo.
In Theroux’s apparent service of something like allegory, all causal explanations for the descent of the Sena into a hideous social maelstrom have been stripped away. What happened to the Sena in forty years in that part of the world? There has been no substantive change in the economics of the villagers, still subsistence farmers and fishermen. There has been no war. The plague of AIDS is only glanced at and seems not to have been part of the history of Malabo. The exertions of the aid agencies are understood generally to have been a waste of time. Hock’s old crush, Gala, has this exchange with him:
“So—hah!—what do you think of your village?”
“It’s changed,” he said.
“Maybe it hasn’t changed,” Gala said. “Maybe it was always like this.”
Virtually every reference to the ongoing collapse of this population points to something mysterious, complex, and ineluctable. The virus of social decay seems to be everywhere. At a later point, Hock happens upon a village of abandoned children, across the border in Mozambique:
“I came to help you,” he said. “I want to give you something—anything. What do you want?”…The small boy who had mimicked him stood up and shrieked, “We want you to die!”
“Yes, yes!” the chant went up….
A clod of mud flew past him, and another hit his shoulder. He hoped it was only mud, though it stank like a turd and could easily have been one….
And now, in a jeering crowd, they had no more fear than a dog pack and were prepared to push him over the edge and into the river.
Gala alludes unconvincingly, as an explanation for the malaise of the villagers, to a general loss of the hope of earlier times, but many readers will feel the shadow of Colin Turnbull’s ethnographic best seller The Mountain People, about the Ik people of northeastern Uganda and their dreadful decline into hopelessness. The fate of the Ik was not mysterious or ineluctable—the Ik lands were taken from them to create a national park. They suffered extreme famine. They were preyed upon by neighboring tribes. (Turnbull has subsequently been criticized for misreading salient aspects of Ik culture.) Nothing cataclysmic is offered as an explanation for the Sena collapse into vileness. Along with the suspense generated by the unfolding plot of The Lower River, the reader experiences a similar anxiety and anticipation regarding an ultimate answer to the question of why the Sena people collapsed as they did.
After a loving recollection of life in the old Malabo, Hock thinks:
All that had vanished. And what was worse, not even a memory of it remained. The villagers hadn’t been innocent before—there’d been petty thieves in Malabo, and he’d been robbed of a knife….[But] the people had seemed unusual to him before, in their gentleness, in the way they had managed their land, their obvious attachment to it…. They were changed, disillusioned, shabby, lazy, dependent, blaming, selfish…. He could not tell how this had come about. He hardly asked, he didn’t care, and he was disappointed in himself for his indifference. Yet he did not want to care more than they themselves did.
Outwardly, this looks very much like a parable. But there is no way to derive a sensible maxim from it. And that’s what parables and allegories are for. Here, there is no cautionary tale to be found. This horrific story has certainly not been designed to support some bromide like “You can’t go home again” or “Cultivate your garden.” Is the “truth” illuminated by this parable that Western assistance programs in impoverished Africa are worthless? And that people like Hock who fail to accept this grim view live in costly self-delusion?
That’s not what’s happening in this book. Paul Theroux’s views on the value of Western development assistance and of the Peace Corps in particular are very well advertised. This is from a 1995 interview by Stephen Capen:
Capen: Somehow you seem to travel around this world of mayhem and war and suffering and in a recent interview you seem to say that people are basically good and helpful and warm and humane…it’s fascinating that this is the overall impression…that you got, after all.
Theroux: That is the overall impression that I have—that people are not impervious to war, but…generally try to rise above it…. You know, they…dress decently, they try to behave decently toward each other. They—life goes on!
The above remarks fairly represent Theroux’s broad and humane sentiments. In 2009, he endorsed Peace Corps service as a life choice for young Americans. Last year he was a featured speaker at the event celebrating the fifty-ninth anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. Theroux does have his criticisms of the way Western aid is delivered, as who doesn’t, but he fits squarely within the role of critical advocate.
This is what I think: the book is a trick. It is disconnected from the body of meaning intrinsic to Theroux’s other writings and statements. Camouflaged as a parable, The Lower River is a successful exercise in straight horror/fantasy genre writing. It was never intended to produce maxims. There is no moral to this tale, or at least no moral that would not read as an apostate’s curse, coming from Paul Theroux.
It’s a particular kind of frightening fun to watch evil flexing and spreading its leathery wings, and really feel it. The Lower River gives the reader just that.