The Lower RiverBy Paul Theroux
If ever you were a Peace Corps Volunteer and reminisce on your time and place of service as a golden era in your life and one that you wish to revisit, this may not be the novel for you. Then again, you may really need to read it in order to reset your perspective. Either way, return is the plot of The Lower River, Theroux’s latest and one of his most compelling novels set in Africa, Malawi specifically.
The tale revolves around Ellis Hock, a man in his sixties who returned from a PCV teaching stint in a small village in the backwaters of Malawi some forty years earlier. Hock’s current life in Massachusetts falls apart, his marriage dissolves, his daughter rejects him, and his business fails. Throughout he remembers Malawi and his time in Malabo, a small village on the lower river. There he was respected, even revered. Life was fascinating and hopeful; the village’s prospects encouraging. Hock’s memories also include a lost love. Thus, with his current life in shambles, Hock decides to go back. Certainly he knows that times have changed, but he hopes to reclaim some of that earlier magic.
The Malawi that Hock finds has indeed changed. It is busier, dirtier, filled with cynical aggressive people. Yet Hock is sure that Malabo will be different, but of course, it is not. The older gentler generation that Hock remembered is gone. Hock’s school lies in ruins, the clinic abandoned, the priest no longer visits. The vestiges of courtesy and respect for elders and outsiders are a sham. Hospitality and generosity are gratuitous, reluctantly granted in expectation of reimbursement. Instead of welcoming him as a long lost friend, Hock is viewed as a resource, a cash cow that must be conserved and carefully milked until she runs dry.
Manyenga , the grandson of the chief Hock previously knew, presides over the village and ingratiates himself to Hock. He provides a young woman, Zizi, to look after Hock’s needs, even as he wheedles money from his ostensible guest. Hock is struck down by malaria, lassitude and despair but soon comes to realize that he is not an honored guest but a hostage. His efforts to come to grips with the situation and to escape constitute the plot of the novel.
Although the plot proceeds with unexpected twists and turns, the story really is about Hock, how things change, how we think about and react to them, and how we come to see truth. The setting is immaculate. The village is real and grungy; its inhabitants believable and their actions – for the most part – plausible. Theroux’s dark side, however, comes through. For example, he seizes the opportunity to mock external relief efforts. He portrays characters at their worse – feral children, aggressive thugs, greedy and conniving chiefs, and defeated idealists. He posits that on account of poverty and hunger villagers are devoid of positive human qualities. These sorts of people may inhabit the real world and maybe even present day Malawi, but Theroux’s portrait of them is disturbing.
Nonetheless, the story is well told. The writing is lucid, even elegant. The setting is impeccable. The interspersion of local language adds credibility. Readers who know Africa, especially returned Peace Corps Volunteers, will find this a gripping tale of a search for redemption and inner peace.