He went - in the way the Peace Corps rolls the dice of our lives - to Africa as a teacher. “My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved liked prisoners, muscles showing through their rags,” he wrote home in 1964. “These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”
How many of us stood in front of similar classrooms and saw those young faces arriving with the dawn? How many of us could have written the same sentiments - though not the same sentences - home? And how many of us wanted to be the writer that he became, the free spirit roaming the world, jotting down notes and writing novels, travel books, short stories and essays?
In forty-plus years of writing, that RPCV, Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65), has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written.
He began by writing about the life he knew in Arica as a Peace Corps Volunteers His first first three novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. Jungle Lovers focuses on Malawi where Paul was a PCV. Two of his later novels, My Secret History and My Other Life, recast his Peace Corps tour as fiction.
In 1996 his first three novels were reissued by Penguin as On the Edge of the Great Rift, a 644-paperback. Also reissued was Sunrise with Seamonsters, his 1985 collection of essays, as well as his novel My Other Life. In 1997 Viking Publishers pulls together than 60 of his short stories in a massive 660-page hardcover collection. His 2002 travel book, Dark Star Safari brought Theroux back to Africa and had him traveling from Cairo to Cape Town. His next book [fall of 2007] is entitled The Elephanta Suite and is set in India where “A holidaying middle-aged couple veer heedlessly from idyll to chaos. A buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds relief in Mumbai’s reeking slums. A young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore.” Theroux is also working on two more travel books, The Cold World about the polar regions, and a revisit to the places written about in The Great Railway Bazaar. There is also talk about a novel entitlted, Mother.
A number of thematic patterns emerge from Theroux’s work. One that runs through many of his books clearly relates to his experience as a Volunteer in Africa, and these books, I think, are his most ambitious and creative. In upcoming ‘blogs’ I’ll review Paul’s Peace Corps history and how the agency and the experience influenced his life and work. In my opinion it was in Africa, in the Peace Corps, that Paul Theroux found his literary landscape, his point of view, and his voice.