"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 2, 2012

"The Lower River" (2012) by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Paul Theroux is an author with an incredibly high production. Although in the first place famous for his travelogues as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), he has also written 32 novels and short story collections. The fiction often is inspired by the travel; in The Lower River we find echoes of the trip through Africa described in Dark Star Safari (2002), but also of Theroux' 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi.

So far, I had been more interested in Theroux the travel author than Theroux the novelist. I have tried several of his early novels but somehow always got stuck in the book without finishing it. The first fiction by Theroux that trapped my attention were the three novellas about India collected in The Elephanta Suite (2007). And now The Lower River... this book again far surpasses these novellas and is indeed a great novel, putting anything that went before it in the shadow. It is a novel about aging; about the meaning of life; about altruism and the lack of it in the world; and the sad plight of Africa where Western aid agencies have for the last 50 years destroyed the economy in many parts of the continent by enslaving the population with dependence on "aid" (China is wiser: by giving practical assistance in the form of building infrastructure, it has won the hearts of the Africans and so also gained access to Africa's minerals).

A middle-aged American called Hock has reached the end of the tether in his work and marriage and burning all ships behind him, returns to Malawi, a small African country he fell in love with 40 years ago when he lived there as a Peace Corps teacher. Instead of reestablishing his dream, Hock arrives in a failed state where the people are lazy, disillusioned and greedy, living off the handouts of the Western aid agencies. The country has also been ravished by AIDS. The school Hock built 40 years ago lies in ruins, and nobody wants it rebuilt.

Hock is taken a virtual prisoner in his old village, Malabo, that is governed by the cynical and dictatorial Manyenga, a sinister chief who used to work for the aid agencies. Hock has been warned: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.” And that is what happens, in a world where altruism has been swiped away, Hock has to fork out dollars for every small service he receives. When he has been fleeced to the bone and his money is all gone, Manyenga decides to sell him to a group of punks who will then try to ransom him.

The only light in this darkness are Hock's former girlfriend, Gala, who gives him sound advise; her 16 year old granddaughter Zizi, a tall and slim fairy tale figure who attends to Hock; and a dwarf named Snowdon. An attempt to flee misfires when he is caught in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned feral children suffering from AIDS. Here he also witnesses a helicopter food dropping by two pop stars working with the "Agence Anonyme": after the heli flies away, elder boys on motorbikes steal all the dropped food in order to sell it. The self-interested do-gooders have corrupted the population with their "good intentions," perverting the local ecology and economy. Western paternalism is still enslaving Africa.

The Lower River has reminded reviewers of Heart of Darkness, with Hock as a Kurtz who is not saved from the jungle; but the novel reminded me even more of A Handful of Dust where the protagonist is "caught" in the jungle as well. One could also think of the dark musings of an author like Coetzee (Disgrace, for example). Although the book is about Africa, it has a much wider resonance for the human condition.

If The Lower River seems a dark and claustrophobic book, that is only partly the case. It is also a book full of humor, a tight thriller, and a book with patches of tenderness. And the end - although a bit deus ex machina-like - is certainly uplifting.