Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.
If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
The village he remembers was an idyll. On return it is a literal and metaphorical snake pit, filled with fork-tongued false friends, threats to his health, and rapacious children of all ages. He is wrenched uncomfortably from the world he knows and begins a tortured existence as if “on another planet, as a despised fugitive, and not on the surface of that planet but on a river in an eerily lit underworld.” The school he helped build stands ruined, and his pupils have departed or died, leaving only a generation of uneducated thugs who welcome him only to milk him like a cow, depleting his money, health, and sanity. His impulse to give school supplies to the village’s children marks him as a fool, and despite all his local knowledge and linguistic skills, he doesn’t realize he’s a sucker until it’s too late.
His hosts become his captors, and when he tries to escape into the bush, he is beset by gangs of AIDS-stricken orphans, who threaten to kill or kidnap him. The bulk of the narrative, after an entertainingly pathetic sketch of his life in Medford, consists in Hock’s attempts to break free of his hosts’ stifling hospitality, if it can be called that. For a price, they give him food and shelter, and they imply that he can leave whenever. But the transport back to the commercial capital, Blantyre, is infrequent, and in any case no one wants Hock and his money to leave. When he tries, he is thwarted, and anyone who takes pity on him faces violent rebuke. So he remains in a prison-without-walls, sick and desperate and captive, like the writer in Misery.
If this nightmare sounds outlandishly dark and violent, I might offer a humble word of corroboration. Over a decade ago, as a scruffy backpacker, I roamed this same portion of the Malawi-Mozambique border, first off the main roads and eventually off roads altogether. I ended up in villages like Hock’s and was welcomed and hosted. But I soon wanted to go — and like Hock, I suffered alarming delays that suggested I would leave on the villagers’ schedule, not on my own. Unlike Hock, I had arrived cash-poor and malodorous, so the villagers weren’t tempted to keep me for too long. Even during those few days, though, I witnessed grisly violence (a love triangle: one man hacked his rival in the face with a machete) and experienced the psychologically unsettling limbo of being both guest and prisoner, surveilled at all times by eyes peeking from behind every tree and termite mound.
So to this escapee, the narrative feels like a plausible worst-case scenario — especially for a visitor who, like Hock, flashes money and overestimates his ability to read the people and terrain. That overestimation is the theme of this novel: Hock’s years in the village are no match for the years away. The people are barely human but rather “reptilian” — “like bush creatures, snakes in dead leaves, lizards on rocks, blending with their surroundings and only their eyelids flicking.” His deepest desire on returning is to reconnect with a flame, someone he once considered marrying. He finds her alone still recognizable, and the one person in the village whose thoughts and words he can trust. Unfortunately, her advice is unambiguous. “They will eat your money,” she says. “When your money is gone, they will eat you.”
It’s instructive to compare The Lower River, whose sole sympathetic African character is this old woman who appears mostly in flashback, with Theroux’s early Africa writings. (Many of the details in this novel echo previous work, such as the putzi flies in World’s End, the sweaty erotic fumbling with young African women inMy Other Life, the chiggers that burrow under toenails in Fresh-Air Fiend, the sexual captivity in My Secret History.) His first novels and short stories were enchanted with the continent and showed Africans possessing ingenuity and humor. Now the human characters have receded into the background, and Hock is alone in this plight, with many of the human emotions he attributes to villagers really just projections of his own memory and desire. These acts of projection lead to disaster.
It’s a pity that Theroux’s late work lacks the affection for Africa that gave his early novels such energy and character. Both are missed here, even if the grimness of the tale is plausible. Theroux returned to Malawi — he, too, was a Peace Corps volunteer in a village there — in his 2002 travelogue Dark Star Safari, an appalled look at how his own paradise had changed. This novel is very much the disenchanted, pessimistic, late-Theroux take on Africa, full of implicit scolding for those who propose to help a benighted continent, and of warning for those foolish enough to hope that paradise stays in suspended animation after you leave it behind.
Instead it changes, and its year-rounders grow desperate and resentful in response to their own poverty and the insulting charity of foreigners. There is an aid agency, L’Agence Anonyme, operating in an ineffective, Orwellian way, at the fringes of the village where Hock is held. And at one point a celebrity humanitarian duo resembling Bono and Angelina Jolie shovel food aid out of a helicopter; Theroux compares this chaos to animals feeding at a trough. The Lower River‘s ideal for foreign involvement in Africa is to come, as the young Hock did, “with nothing — nothing to steal, nothing to tempt or distract them, as a visiting bystander, detached, on the periphery where foreigners belonged, with only the clothes he stood up in and a ticket home.”
The best that can be said for the main African characters — the ones who engineer Hock’s captivity and plot to profit from it — is that they are, unlike Hock and the other foreigners, undeluded. They see where the money is, and they are ruthless and cruel in its pursuit. It is an ugly lesson for Hock, but perhaps to be disabused you have to be abused first.