The Lower River
A Novel of Africa
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)You're 62, the clothing store you've owned for decades is going south, your marriage is going to hell, you're going off the rails, and the only thing that Chicky, your adult daughter, wants from you is her inheritance. All of it. Now. Do you blow out your brains, blow town, or travel back in time?
Protagonist Ellis Hock, picks options two and three. As it turns out, door number one would have been the less painful, noisier, messier, more expedient choice, but then Theroux would not have a novel and you would not have the, er, pleasure of reading this harrowing, horrific tale of how the best of intentions can suddenly change course, head for Hades and take you along for the ride.
The story opens with a quote from The Inferno,
I said to him: "I've come -- but not for keeps
But who are you, become so horrible?"
He answers: "Look, I am the one who weeps."
Hock has been somnambulantly marking time for decades in his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts (also Theroux's hometown), running the upscale men's apparel store his father left him and fooling around with women other than his wife --- but not as a contact sport; flirty email messages were as far as his philandering ever went. Then, thanks to a bit of high-tech, passive-aggressiveness on Mrs. Hock's part, the many dozens of chummy missives are revealed and a toxic mold hits the air conditioning. At which point things really go to pieces.
Hock's solution? Cut and run: Return to those simple, torridly bucolic days of yesteryear when he was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in a remote village in the Central African country of Malawi. (Theroux was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in 1963.)
It was there, in the village of Malabo, that Hock was the happiest, and, as his USA life rapidly morphs from dull to dreary to disastrous, he wastes no time returning to the rural settlement --- minus the P.C. affiliation --- where, as a young man, he found so much joy, satisfaction and seductive sensuality. But Malabo is no longer what it was. Hock realizes this soon after he arrives in the village, but not soon enough.
"It was an old turning, perhaps the oldest," Theroux writes, "one he'd first regarded as a victory, the happy decision to become a teacher in Africa, long ago when he'd seen the undisturbed bush at its most beautiful. He knew now where he had gone wrong. It was at the very beginning of his life as a man. He should never have come to Africa in the first place, never trifled with these people, never involved himself in their lives, mistaking their hopes for his own. Yet he had, and it had destroyed him."In a 2005 New York Times opinion piece Theroux did a bang up, and bang on, job of critiquing how unhelpful helping Africa can be. The entire article is worth reading, but these short passages give you the gist:
It seems to have been Africa's fate to become a theater of empty talk and public gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help --- not to mention celebrities and charity concerts --- is a destructive and misleading conceit . . . Africa is a lovely place --- much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.
[The complete article can be found here].
In a 2012 National Public Radio interview about The Lower River, Theroux says, "[Ellis Hock] finds a haunted place. He finds a place that's been completely neglected, that's sort of turned in upon itself. The place actually exists and the people exist. It used to be called Port Herald in the southern part of Malawi. The lower river is an actual place --- the Shire River --- which flows into the Zambezi. It's not exactly the place that I'm writing about in my book. I mean, I'm writing about a village that doesn't exist. But Ellis Hock goes there and he's looking for his happiness."
It's not giving away much to reveal that Hock doesn't find what he's looking for. Not at all. Not a bit of it. None. What he does find, as Theroux describes, is decay, distrust, decrepitude, manipulation, deception, a place of darkness that has little or no heart left. Over the intervening decades, since Hock first lived in Malabo, taught school there, saw his own nourishing influence, met a woman who lit him up, its goodness, hope and promise have crumbled badly. The people no longer believe much of anything. Some of them remember Hock, but they now see him differently, more like an ATM. "He wanted something from them," Theroux writes, describing the villagers' outlook, "why else would he come all this way to live in a hut? Altruism was unknown. Forty years of aid and charities and NGOs had taught them that. Only self-interested outsiders trifled with Africa, so Africa punished them for it."
Indeed, what Hock lands in is something like a 3D, African village-sized rendition of The Eagles' "Hotel California,"
I had to find the passage back / To the place I was before / "Relax" said the night man, / "We are programmed to receive. / You can check-out any time you like, / But you can never leave!"
The night man (and everyman) in Theroux's story is Malenga, Malabo's headman who greets Hock as a virtual messiah, dubs him the "chief," welcomes him enthusiastically and exuberantly, compliments him, feeds him, provides a hut, even gives him a shy, lithe young virgin, Zizi, to do his cleaning, his cooking, and whatever, or whoever, else might want doing. But what is the truth of the situation, or of anything? Ahh, that is the thing Malenga can't (or won't) provide, except to repeatedly tell Hock that he must stay, he's wanted, he'll be taken care of. But more than anything the people of Malabo, especially Malenga, need his money, which --- idiotically --- he's brought a big pile of in a rucksack. They want that and they want him to never, ever leave."It's a story that's been in my mind a lot because it's the picnic that goes wrong, the vacation that turns into a horror," Theroux says in the NPR interview:
You know, you go to a place --- it happened to me in Africa long ago. I went. These people said come to our village and, you know, we'll have a drink. It was late at night. We went. Next morning, I said I think I'll leave. They said no, no, no, stick around another day. I did. On the third day, I said I'm definitely leaving. They said no, no, you can't leave. Give us money and you're staying. And it went on for three or four days. It was very, very scary. They wouldn't let me leave. And I've often thought about that experience. I suppose I transformed that into this story of the man who goes sentimentally back to his village, the happy village of his Peace Corps years. And it's not only different but they won't let him go.Theroux's history with Africa is long, winding and deep. He knows the place, he knows the people, and understands how the relationship dynamics work in the complex interweaving of muzungus (foreigners) and Africans. And the often odd, unbalanced role that money plays even in the closest of friendships and love affairs; not to mention the flaky, flexible, ephemeral nature of truth-telling. As he writes in the novel:
"This looks like such a simple place. But no, everyone lies, so you can't know it at all. The truth is absent here."
"Why do people lie?"
"Because they have been taught to lie. It works for them better than the truth. And they're hungry. If you're hungry, you will do anything, you will agree to anything, you will say anything."Paul Theroux has written about Africa prolifically, brilliantly and beautifully, both fiction and non-fiction, and I suspect he's adept at working the territory in-between. He is savvy and (rightfully) dismissive about how the bland, meaningless NGO-speak and aid agency jargon --- sustainability, capacity-building, empowerment, stakeholders, facilitators, and so on --- have become integrated into African English even far upcountry. In short, he gets it, so the fabric of Theroux's writing about Africa is like fine tapestry --- sometimes, as in The Lower River, it's a cranky, grumpy, brutal, depressing, dark, cynical fine tapestry . . . but fine tapestry nonetheless: meticulous, visual, delicious.
When it comes to foreigners crafting prose about the vast continent, he belongs in the pantheon of Ryszard Kapuściński, or perhaps Richard Dowden, whose fat Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is masterful and true.
As for what finally becomes of Ellis Hock, I'd tell you the truth if I thought you'd believe me, and if I knew what it was.