THE LOWER RIVER
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 323 pp. $25
Former Peace Corps volunteers sometimes like to take sentimental journeys back to the towns and villages where they spent a couple of years expanding their world views and doing useful work. I’ve gone on such a visit myself, and it’s gratifying. But Ellis Hock isn’t so lucky. He’s the protagonist in “The Lower River,” a grim-spirited and rattlingly suspenseful new novel by Paul Theroux, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s.
When Hock returns to Malawi after 40 years, instead of enjoying a happy reunion he is taken captive by his erstwhile hosts and treated to a long, hideous look at Africa at its phantasmagoric worst.
The strengths of this novel, Theroux’s 29th work of fiction, are numerous. For deep-in-the-bush scene-setting, Theroux has no peer. The muck and the stench of the Lower River ooze off the pages, along with a wide variety of snakes that Hock learned to handle during his first visit. (This turns out to be a skill that comes in handy four decades later.) And the human landscape in the remote village of Malabo is just as indelible. There’s Gala, the pretty, humor-filled woman whom Hock once imagined marrying, who’s now a decaying granny. She urges him to clear out while he can. The local people, she warns, “will eat your money” and “when your money is gone, they will eat you.”
Gala’s 16-year-old granddaughter, Zizi, an alert, slim beauty, becomes Hock’s helper and pal, and it is all he can do to keep from deflowering her and ruining her bride-price value. Festus Manyenga is the village headman, a man of vast cunning and bottomless malevolence who used to work for aid agencies. He insists that Hock remain in Malabo because “we are needing an intervention.”
Theroux, who knows the language, has a knack for creating believable Malawian characters, but I wish Hock were easier to fathom. In a flashback to the late 1960s, when his father dies, the snake-charmer, teacher and builder of schools is called back from Africa to run the family’s suburban Boston haberdashery. He marries a profoundly conventional woman, raises a cold-hearted daughter and longs for the village where he once was happy. But he doesn’t rouse himself to return until his marriage unravels nearly four decades later, and, incredibly, when he books his flight, Hock has failed to notice that Africa has changed. Doesn’t he read a newspaper? The once hopeful, stable, post-colonial Africa of that brief golden era has become a mess, and in some regions an utter horror. How could this supposedly smart guy be so clueless?
Even in his Peace Corps days, Hock had been one of the organization’s eccentrics. He had become fluent in the language and stayed at his outpost for four years instead of the standard two. He was “one of those volunteer teachers about whom the other Americans talked with respect tinged with satire, because they never saw him, and no one wanted to go to the Lower River.” Usually, people like that keep on being interestingly weird when they get home, or they head off to places like Nepal. Once untethered, they don’t settle in Medford, Mass., and sell neckties.
During his disastrous present-day visit, Hock is victimized not only by desperate Africans — a brilliant sequence in a village of feral AIDS orphans could be right out of Conrad — but by foreign aid workers as well. They prove to be as mean and obtuse as the corrupt village headman. L’Agence Anonyme, an apparent metaphor for the most thoughtless aid efforts in Africa, flies helicopters around as pop stars shove food packets out the door to rioting mobs below. It’s as caustic a view of food aid as I’ve seen anywhere and, fair or unfair, a sharp piece of Swiftian satire.
I am guessing that most Peace Corps volunteers in Africa today won’t recognize Theroux’s travelogue of degradation. The Peace Corps doesn’t send anybody into areas of conflict or civil unrest. But Theroux’s bravely unsentimental novel about a region where he began his own grand career should become part of anybody’s education in the continent. It’s just too bad that Ellis Hock is more a literary conceit than a credible man.
Lipez is a journalist and novelist who was a Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964.