Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (Malawi)

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 thirty-plus years of writing, that RPCV, Paul Theroux, 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 Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Theroux as a PCV in Training

His first three novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. And 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. And in 1997 from Viking came more than 60 of his short stories in a massive 660-page hardcover collection.

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. Africa is where Theroux found his literary landscape, his point of view, and even his voice.

A Crack in the Earth
In 1964 Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyasaland (as Malawi was called before independence), living on the edge of “a crack in the earth,” as he wrote in a letter to The Christian Science Monitor. That same year I was a PCV farther north, up in the highlands of Ethiopia, a few hours east of the Great Rift.

Through our years in Africa overlapped, I didn’t know Theroux then. But I heard of him. By the time he was 23, his outspokenness had already made him notorious within the Peace Corps.

In the fall of 1965, when I returned to Ethiopia as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD), he appeared as a central character in a story that swept through Peace Corps/Africa. The country director in Malawi had been sent home by the U.S. Ambassador, Sam P. Gilstrap.
It seems that the Malawi PCVs had started a Volunteer newspaper called The Migraine, and its editor had written a piece opposing the American presence in Vietnam. When the Ambassador, an old and dear friend of President Lyndon Johnson, saw the newspaper, he expelled the country director, Michael McCone (Staff: Sierra Leone, Malawi, Malaysia 1962–66), for allowing the publication of the editorial — which had been written by Paul Theroux.

Will Lotter, Deputy Director of the Malawi Peace Corps project (1965–67), said it was Theroux’s article that first made him aware of the anti-war movement among young Americans. “I came off the Davis campus in California. I had been an athletic coach and Paul opened my eyes to our folly in Vietnam.”

And if they read his editorial, most Volunteers overseas would have agreed with Theroux, though many Volunteers did support U.S. military activities in Asia, at least in 1964. (It wasn’t until 1965-66 that male PCVs began to join the Peace Corps to avoid the draft.)

But what was Ambassador Gilstrap thinking? Didn’t every ambassador know PCVs always mouthed off against U.S. foreign policy, even while eating all the hors d’oeuvres at every embassy reception? If anyone lacked good judgment, it was Sam P. Gilstrap.

I remember reading cable traffic about the incident. Country Director Mike McCone was back in Washington being interviewed by Sargent Shriver and waiting for a decision on his Peace Corps future.

About that same time, it was learned that a Volunteer in Malawi had been declared persona non grata by Dr. Hastings Banda, the Prime Minister, not for protesting the Vietnam war but for supporting Yatuta Chisiza, a Malawian whom Banda suspected of trying to overthrow his government. Again, the PCV in question was Paul Theroux.

Tarzan & Me
I forgot about Theroux until two years later, in my last months as an APCD. One day, in a crammed Greek-owned bookstore near the piazza in Addis Ababa, I picked up a copy of Transition, a new Ugandan literary magazine. In it was an essay, “Tarzan is an Expatriate,,” written by Paul Theroux, who was identified as a lecturer in English at Makerere University in Kampala. There was no mention of his Peace Corps days.

Theroux in Africa

In the essay, Theroux confessed that he spent his pre-adolescent years reading comic books inspired by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Theroux would later tell Harris Wofford (Staff: D.C, Ethiopia 1962–66) — early architect of the Peace Corps, former Pennsylvania senator, and currently Chief Executive Office of the Corporation for National Service — that when he read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness he put his finger on the title page and said, “When I join the Peace Corps I shall go there.”)

But Theroux had gone far beyond Burroughs and understood what Tarzan — the “white man in Africa,” — really meant to expatriates, missionaries and PCVs. (“The expatriate has all of these rewards together with a distinct conviction that no one will bother him; he will be helped by the Africans and overrated by his friends who stayed in England or the United States. He is Tarzan, the King of the Jungle.”) Reading the essay shook my beliefs about Peace Corps Volunteers in developing countries. I clipped the article and saved it. (Years later, when I returned to visit Ethiopia, I found that the Peace Corps staff had mimeographed the essay and was using it for in-country training.)

Outsiders in Africa
In mid-winter, 1968, I wandered into Discount Books & Records off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and spotted a thin novel entitled Fong and the Indians. The author was Paul Theroux. The setting was Africa.

Theroux would write later of this novel, “I began writing about the Chinese man who ran the grocery store around the corner from where I lived in Wandegeya [in Kampala, Uganda] . . . The Chinese man, his grocery store, his Indian competitors, his African customers — these were my characters . . . I had written two novels before this, but Fong was the first piece of fiction that satisfied me.” Theroux would come back to this Chinese immigrant. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece about Hong Kong (June 10, 1997), he mentioned again this lone Chinese family in Africa.
What Theroux was writing about was not Africa and Africans, but about the outsiders in Africa. The Chinese man in Uganda. The British ex-pat in Malawi. The colonialist in Mozambique. And yes, Peace Corps Volunteers.

“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber,” he writes in the preface to On The Edge of the Great Rift. “He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”
These “displaced people” in Africa fired both his curiosity and his prose. They were the source of his famous scorn, off the written page as well as on it.

The Radical PCV
Paul Theroux lived, not only on the edge of the Rift, but also on the edge of the Peace Corps. He was the Volunteer who lived in the African village without servants. He drank in the shanty bars instead of with the Brits at their gymkhanas. He went home with African women and did not date the pale daughters of British settlers when they came home on holidays from their all-white Rhodesian boarding schools. He hated the PCVs who ran with the ex-pats, the “wog bashers,” as they called themselves. But though he held himself apart from his fellow PCVs, Theroux was, according to his country director, Michael McCone, “an outstanding teacher who lived up to the Peace Corps standard of involvement in his school.” And it was this very involvement with his fellow teachers and African friends that finally got him into big trouble.

Persona non grata
“Two months before I was supposed to leave,” Theroux recalled in a 1971 essay published in Esquire and reprinted in Sunrise with Seamonsters, “I was charged with conspiring against the government. All I did was help several Africans: help one’s mother, help another with his car, maybe write a few mild anti-[U.S.] government articles. But I was linked to a plot to assassinate Hastings Banda. Well, people I knew were actually trying to shoot Banda. So it was more guilt by association.”

Theroux came home to be interrogated by the State Department and the Peace Corps.
Writing about this in Esquire, under the title “The Killing of Hastings Banda,” Theroux explained how he had innocently gotten mixed up with the German equivalent of the CIA. He was writing “background” pieces for what he understood was a German magazine, but what was actually their intelligence service. This, of course, was — and still is — against Peace Corps regulations.

The “background pieces” eventually went to The Christian Science Monitor and were his first published writings on Africa. These essays saved him, as he writes in the introduction to Sunrise with Seamonsters, “from dropping back into the schoolroom, or into the even more dire profession of writing applications for grants and fellowships.”

Theroux wasn’t kicked out of the Peace Corps for writing articles about Malawi, but toward the end of his second year as a Volunteer, he made the mistake of helping a Malawian friend, David Rubadiri, a former headmaster of Theroux’s school and later a delegate to the United Nations. Rubadiri had recently been denounced by Hastings Banda, had left the U.N. in New York, and was living in political exile in Uganda.

Rubadiri wrote to Paul from Uganda, “asking me if I could find it in my heart to help his mother flee the country, and also would I mind driving his car to Uganda with his set of best china, a dinner service for twelve.”

Theroux, as a favor to his friend, did transport the car, the mother and the china to Kampala. On his way back to Malawi by plane, and at Rubadiri’s request, he flew via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to deliver an envelope to Yatuuta Chisiza, a revolutionary who had organized an army that was attacking Malawi border posts in hopes of eventually overthrowing Banda.

As Theroux wrote in Esquire, “My readiness to say yes to favors may suggest a simplicity of mind, a fatal gullibility; but I was bored.” Next he carried a coded message from Yatuuta Chisiza to a “Greek fellow” in Malawi’s capital, Blantyre, When Theroux delivered him the message — that on October 16 the Greek baker was to deliver his bread to Ncheu, a town thirty miles from Blantyre — the baker “trembled and went pale.”

Later, in a Chinese restaurant in Salisbury, Rhodesia, Theroux was told by Wes Leach, the Peace Corps Associate Director (Staff: Malawi 1964–66), that Banda told the American ambassador that Banda had proof Theroux was plotting to kill him. Banda demanded the Volunteer be sent home.

Theroux guessed the Greek baker had been caught, interrogated by the Malawi Criminal Investigation Department about the “bread van” and, frightened for his own life, set up the American messenger. Using Theroux’s name, government agents established correspondence with Chisiza in Dar es Salaam. Later, instead of finding “bread” waiting in a van, Chisiza found Malawi soldiers, who ambushed and killed the revolutionary gunmen from Tanzania.

For a while, Theroux thought he might also have been expelled from Malawi because of an English textbook he was writing. With no resources but some inappropriate grammar books from Kansas and a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels donated by the English Speaking Union in London, Theroux and a Malawian linguist had begun writing a textbook that concentrated on verb patterns and sentence structure, rather than the usual grammar punctuation of subordinating conjunctions, adjectival phrases, and dependent clauses. At some point, the textbook was shown to Hastings Banda, and in a speech before Parliament he attacked certain teachers of English, and Paul’s textbook in particular, because it contained no grammar lessons. Banda was furious, calling the book a “nonsensical linguistic approach.”

Although Banda used the textbook to attack him, it was not Theroux’s sentence structure but his association with various Malawians trying to overthrow the government that finally got him kicked out of the country and the Peace Corps.

(In 1971 Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda declared himself Malawi’s President for Life after an attempted revolt within his cabinet. He ruled Malawi until 1994 when he was finally lost power. On November 25, 1997, he died of respiratory failure in Johannesburg, South Africa, having been transferred there from a Malawian hospital suffering from pneumonia and fever. The Garden City Clinic, where he died, said he was 99, but government documents during his rule would have made him about 90. He was given a state funeral on December 3, 1997, with a 19-gun salute and military honors.)

In, Up, and Out
Sent home from Africa, Theroux stayed at the Claridge Hotel in Washington, D.C., around the corner from the Peace Corps Headquarters. He was in and out of the Claridge Hotel in less than a week. Because he had been terminated early, the Peace Corps added to his misery by deducting his airfare from Africa to Washington from his readjustment allowance, leaving him with only $200 — not much, even in 1965.

African friends, however, came to his rescue and got him a job at Makerere University in Uganda, where he was appointed director of the university center for adult studies in Kampala.

By October, 1967, he was in trouble again, this time with the Ugandan government. He published an essay in Transition entitled, “Hating the Asians,” a report on the mounting prejudice directed at East Africa’s Indian population. The Uganda government protested and letters were written saying that there was no bigotry in Africa and that the Indians could have anything they wanted. Five years later, Idi Amin deported all of Uganda’s Asian population and confiscated their property. But by then Theroux had left Africa for the second time.

That four-year contract at Makerere University, one of the best universities in Africa, was important to Theroux for two reasons. There he met and became friends with V.S. Naipaul, whose “close attention to my writing (often he would go over something I had written word by word) had a profound influence on me.” Also at Makerere he met Anne Castle, his future wife, who was a teacher at an upcountry secondary school in Kenya. The school, his wife, and several Peace Corps types are all characters in his second novel, Girls at Play.

Of Peace Corps Personalities and Others
Girls At Play was the second novel that Theroux based on his experiences in Africa. In this book B. J. Lebow, the first of Theroux’s Peace Corps characters, appears. “It’s sort of Jewish,” Lebow says of her name. “It used to be Lebowitz, I guess. You probably knew that, everybody does. But I’m no Jew. I went to Israel one summer. That cured me. What a bunch of boy scouts.”

Theroux would use this Peace Corps experience in a short story he has said is one of his favorites, “White Lies.” It was published in May, 1979 in Playboy and was included in a 40-year retrospective of Playboy fiction. Recalling the source of the story, Theroux writes (in Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers), “In Malawi, in 1964, as a Peace Corps teacher, I took a trip to the shore of Lake Malawi with some other volunteers. We were all fending for ourselves, cooking, washing, and so forth. One day I developed a strange skin condition — red bumps, pimple-like; and soon they were large and painful, erupting all over my back and shoulders. Each one held a maggot, which began as an egg laid on my shirt by a putzi fly. Using matches and tweezers my Peace Corps buddy, Bob Maccani, dug them out — Zikomo kwambiri, Bambo Bob. For years I wondered how I could use this unexpected malady, and then I came up with this story, which is still one of my favorites, and full of detail from my experience in Africa.”

The short story involved a PCV (whom Theroux refers to only as a teacher) who brings home from the local bar every Saturday night, an African girl, Ameena, who does his ironing before heading back into town.

When the PCV takes up with the English headmaster’s daughter, home for the holidays from her Rhodesian secondary school, Ameena delivers a “present,” a shirt that, when he wears it, causes masses of tiny reddened patches, like fly bites, all over his body.

The PCV thinks he has been cursed by Ameena because he abandoned her for the pretty English girl. The fly bites turn into maggots, “their ugly heads stuck out like beads,” Theroux writes. As the narrator holds a cigarette lighter near the bites to ease the maggots out of his roommate’s skin, Theroux sums up, “The danger lay in their breaking: if I pulled too hard some would be left in the boil to decay, and that, I said, would kill him.”

The PCV leaves Africa at once, scarred by the experience, and the story’s narrator comments that the “life cycle [of the maggots] was the same as many others of their kind: they laid their eggs on laundry and these larvae hatched at body heat and burrowed into the skin to mature. Of course, laundry was always ironed — even drip-dry shirts — to kill them. Everyone who knew Africa knew that.” But not this PCV.

Theroux also disliked the Washington Peace Corps staff. In the essay, “Reminiscence: Malawi,” which appeared in Making A Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-Five edited by Milton Viorst [NY: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986], Theroux recalls, “I remembered all the official freeloaders who came out from Washington on so-called inspection tours, and how they tried to ingratiate themselves. ‘You’re doing wonderful work here. . . . It’s a great little country,’ they said; but for most of them it was merely an African safari. They hadn’t the slightest idea of what we were doing, and our revenge was to take them on long, bumpy rides through the bush.”

Theroux especially disliked the embassy personnel, “all those whispering middle-aged aunties who couldn’t speak the language.” He had good reason in light of how he was treated by the U.S. Embassy.

Reading his fiction and nonfiction, it is easy to see that Theroux responded best to individuals, not groups. While he might make a crudely provocative comment to a group of English settlers in a Malawi bar, (a comment like, “The Queen’s a whore,” as he passed her portrait hanging above the bottles of gin), he could also befriend an English neighbor, Sir Martin Roseveare, the principal of a teachers’ college. (Roseveare died in Malawi in 1985 at the age of 86; he had been knighted in 1946 for designing the fraud-proof ration book in wartime Britain.)

During his own life in Africa, Theroux always aimed at becoming an insider, not an outsider. “After I lived awhile in a cozy bungalow with two servants,” He writes about his Peace Corps tour, “I moved into an African township, where I lived in a semi-slum, in a two-room hut — cold water, cracks in the walls, tin roof, music blasting all day from the other huts, shrieks, dogs, chickens. It was just the thing. The experience greatly shaped my life.” In another essay, he recalls, “In Malawi I saw my first hyena, smoked my first hashish, witnessed my first murder, caught my first case of gonorrhea.”

All Writers Lie
In 1979, Theroux turned his life into My Secret History, a novel that fictionalized his teenage years in Medford, Massachusetts; his Peace Corps years in Malawi; teaching in Uganda; his marriage to Anne; his friendship with V.S. Naipaul; life in Burma; and his journeys as a best-selling travel writer. And, from Medford to India, he lists the women he had relations with, and lived with, from the whores of Malawi to British shop girls to the woman he courted and married.

Seven years later came My Other Life, which he claims is “the story of a life I could have lived had things been different — an imaginary memoir.” Of the two, Theroux says, “Anyone reading that book [My Secret History] and this one [My Other Life] would become totally confused about my life. Which is fine with me.”

All writers lie. Fiction writers lie the most. And what writers write about is not really their own lives, even if that seems to be their subject. Most novels are much more interesting than any one person’s life.

The reason we believe Theroux really did this, and did that, is because his life — in fiction and nonfiction — seems so alive on paper. This is his real writer’s gift. His ability to make his prose vivid, however, doesn’t make the stories true.

What pulses through Theroux’s writing is an urgency: the language, the setting, the description, the narrative. One reads fast to keep up with his string of metaphors, deft descriptions, telling lines. It is as if he wants to get it all down, and get it down fast. Readers keep coming back to him because they know they’ll be surprised by his prose.

Theroux, Slightly Foxed
Still, people get confused. Even his own wife and family.

After an excerpt from My Other Life was published in the August 1995 The New Yorker, Anne Castle Theroux (now Paul’s ex) wrote the magazine that “a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.” She was upset by the section called, “A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed,” in which the character Anne says of the late Anthony Burgess. “I must confess that I am not a fan.” Anne Castle Theroux summed up, “I would have been delighted to have Burgess to dinner at my house, but, alas, it didn’t happen.”
Of course it didn’t, and Anne, of all people, should have been more understanding, if not of Paul the husband, then of Paul the writer. Writers can’t be trusted.

Theroux’s brother Alexander, also a novelist, suffered a similar lapse of understanding, attacking the book as Paul’s attempt “to seek absolution for 30 years of wayward, unfair bitchery and to come out — even if only for the space of a story — into the sunlight from cruel, carious shadows which, like a crab, he has so long chosen to inhabit.”

A Wonderful Young Man
It is certainly true that Paul can get under people’s skin — perhaps just as the ex-pats and others got under his skin. But he wasn’t always so disagreeable. Jane Campbell Beaven, (Staff: D.C., Ethiopia 1961–66) one of the great women of the early Peace Corps staff, accompanied Paul’s group out to Malawi and remembers him as “charming, thoughtful and engaging. A wonderful young man.”

My own encounters with him support the latter impression. In the late 1980s, when I was putting together a collection of Peace Corps short fiction for an anthology, I wrote Paul asking permission to reprint a story (“White Lies”), and also requesting a letter of support for the book, something that I might show publishers.

He wrote back immediately with permission. Later he called and told me in detail how I should develop the book, what stories to choose, and how to focus the collection. He did stop at one point to say, “Well, I guess this is your book and you should do what you want.” Then he went back to giving me advice — all of it good.

The book, alas, never did find a publisher. (However, Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers [Curbstone Press, 1999] which I edited includes the same story by Theroux.)

I’ll Always be a PCV
In 1989, Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1964-66), the executive director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, (the alumni group of RPCVs renamed the National Peace Corps Association), organized the first of a short series of Founder’s Day Dinners. It was held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., on May 29th, JFK’s birth date, as a way of celebrating the Peace Corps and returned Volunteers.

While a number of Washington’s glitterati were to attend, including Caroline Kennedy and the Shrivers (Maria Shriver served as MC), Tim Carroll wanted an RPCV speaker who was, as Carroll put it, “both famous and controversial, notable for achievement yet seared by the experience we would recognize as our own.”

He decided on Theroux, who was then living in London but agreed to participate.

Before the dinner, I found Theroux in the lobby of the Willard and introduced myself. He remembered me, asked about the book project, and we talked for a few minutes about what he was writing. At the time, I found his British accent and hauteur a bit off-putting, but writers are unconscious mimics and Theroux had spent most of his adult life among the British in Africa, Singapore, and England. His first wife was British. His kids were British. Of course, he would sound British. (He seems, however, not to love England. When asked several years ago by an interviewer what was the worst place he had ever been, Theroux replied, “South London on a rainy winter afternoon, preferably on a Saturday or Sunday. Everything, literally everything, is wet, gray, and dismal. Your heart is in your boots. That’s definitely the pits. You simply want to shoot yourself.”)

I kept popping questions at him, hoping that one or another might stir him into a conversation, a little give-and-take. But he was monosyllabic, at best.

Paul is well aware of his social failing. In the introduction to his collection of stories, he writes, “People who have no idea who they are talking to have told me that they love Paul Theroux’s stories; yet I can see they aren’t impressed with me.” After a few minutes of struggling to reach common ground, we were summoned to dinner.

Theroux gave that night’s address. It was long and rambling and disorganized and made no reference to Malawi or the Peace Corps. He spoke with a pronounced British accent and mumbled a great deal. He lost the audience halfway through his talk.

But I remember clearly his closing comment, when his voice softened a little and he talked about hearing the novelist Leon Uris, in a reminiscent mood, say that whatever else had happened to him, he always thought of himself as a young man, a Marine. Theroux summed up by saying that whatever else he was, he would always think of himself as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
It was a nice touch. A generous touch, considering that the Peace Corps had thrown him out and taken away all his readjustment money years before.

Peace Corps Connection
In 1994 RPCV Ron Arias (Peru 1963-64) went to Hawaii to interview Theroux for People magazine. Theroux had just published a novel, Millroy the Magician, and that was how Ron was able to convince People that Theroux was a suitable subject for the magazine. Ron, however, who had recently spent time in Australia and had taken up sea kayaking, really wanted to talk to Theroux about his travel book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux’s account of traveling through the South Pacific in a sea kayak. These kayaks are sleek folding boats that can be put into the water anywhere, in the waters of Hawaii, where Theroux lives half the year, or back near his second home in Barnstable, Massachusetts.

“When I began to travel with my kayak, my life changed,” Theroux told Arias. “I learned what all kayakers find out — you head for the offshore island, and often when you get there you see another, more distant island, invisible from the mainland shore. And so you are led onward, self-contained and self-reliant and utterly uplifted.”

The two men went searching for a humpback whale, a half-mile offshore, in the ink-blue Kauai’s coastal waters. What impressed Ron was Theroux’s complete lack of fear, how he would approach a blowhole when other kayakers backed off.

“I want to know things,” he explained, “especially if people say they’re dangerous or off-limits. How else do you discover what’s new and interesting?”

Afterward, Theroux invited Ron back to his house, saying that this was something that he couldn’t do with other reporters, but Ron, after all, was an RPCV.

The End of Leprosy
In many ways, Paul keeps going back to his Peace Corps connection. In September, 1989, he wrote a piece for National Geographic about Malawi entitled, “Faces of a Quiet Land.” He traveled twice to the country to do his research.

The experience was moving for him, as it usually is for RPCVs who revisit their sites and see what happened to their students. In the National Geographic piece, he recalls his Peace Corps tour. “My classes were made up of skinny barefoot children who wanted to be doctors or lawyers,” he wrote. “They had impressive audacity and ambition — they seemed to come from nowhere, like waifs through the mist on cold Malawi mornings, and they were claiming their place in the world.”

He went to Soche Hill Secondary School outside Limbe, where he had spent his Peace Corps years.

“I had first met them in the rainy season of 1964, when they were barefoot children in their mid-teens,” he wrote of his former students. “What a pleasure it was for me 23 years later to see that they were still alive, still well and happy, and that they had families and jobs.”

It was on this journey back to Africa that he revisited the leper mission at Ntakataka, but it was closed. His remembrance of this Peace Corps experience at the Catholic mission appeared in Granta 48 (a quarterly magazine published in England), in the summer of 1994. This essay, “The Lepers of Moyo,” later became Chapter Two of, My Other Life (an earlier piece on Ntakataka appeared as “Leper Colony: A Diary Entry” in the Evergreen Review in 1966.)

About Moyo, Theroux writes, “During the African school holiday, we Peace Corps teachers were told to get jobs or do something useful . . . one of my students mentioned that he was from the Central Province, near the lake. He told me the name of his village and said it was on the way to the mission hospital, Moyo.”

Theroux went there to teach English and live with the white-cassock missionary priests. He would fail at teaching English to the lepers, fail at playing cards with the priests, but he would succeed in meeting two very interesting women, an American nurse from Indiana who dressed like a Sister of the Sacred Heart, and the beautiful but leprous young Anina who brought her blind granny to Theroux’s English classes in the bandaging room.

But how much of it is true? Did he really sleep with Birdie, the American nurse who dressed in a nun’s white, and went naked beneath it?

And did he sleep with Amina, the girl who, lying with him on her straw mat, only inches away from her blind granny, whispered, Ndiri ndi mphere kwabasi. “I have a serious itch.” That line, Theroux said in Granta, was one of the sexiest things he had ever heard. But did she say it?

I Am Paul Theroux
Those who write, Theroux has declared, “are disturbed, dysfunctional, cranky, incomplete, not housebroken. Why else would I write the kinds of things I write if I were a nice normal person?”

At times, however, he can be nice and normal. He is working with travel writer Tom Miller to publish a book of remembrances of RPCV Moritz Thomsen. And lately, he has even been saying nice things about RPCV books, just to help out fellow Peace Corps writers. When I write to him, I know I’ll get a postcard, quickly scribbled and virtually unreadable. I need to enlarge it in the photocopier to decipher the few sentences of support, encouragement, and occasionally praise.

When I last saw him in New York, it was after the publication of The Pillars of Hercules and he was doing a reading at a small upper East Side bookstore. It was a hot night, hot as one of those Mediterranean islands he had just written about, and when I arrived he was backed against a pillar by a very thin, very nervous female publicist from Putnam, his publisher. He was surprisingly relaxed and chatty in his presentation, and read-only a short section took questions from the crowd of 50 or so, and told some travel stories. He linked his many journeys together, making it seem that all this travel formed an orderly career and was not just done for random assignments that carried him away to far-off places.

Theroux finished talking about travel and the Mediterranean and his book and accepted the polite East Side applause. Then there were copies of the book to be signed. Before he left, I introduced myself to him again and we talked briefly, but he was anxious to leave.

When he was gone, I wished I had made more of the exchange or had asked him to lunch. I recalled Ron Arias’s account of being with Theroux in Hawaii and meeting a middle-aged hitchhiker who said he had just beaten up his best friend. Theroux, says Ron, immediately began to interrogate the man, hungry always for anything dangerous, off-limits, at the edge. I should have spoken up.

But the moment was gone. I’d write him, I told myself, and get yet another illegible postcard from Hawaii. Or somewhere.

Africa Shaped Him
Few of us, RPCVs or otherwise, would have his talent for language. Or his stamina. It is easier, of course, not to try. It’s always easier to stay behind at the gymkhana and not go native. It’s always easier not to write at all.

But those early years in Africa shaped him. There, as he said, he discovered what to write, and why.

John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Published in about 1995

 

14 Comments

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  • Well, you are wrong, John. You aren’t that bad a guy; a fine one, as a matter of fact.
    And a damned good writer! So they can coincide…

  • John, thanks for the rather comprehensive overview of Theroux, his wandering and his writings. I have never been a Theroux fan, having grown up in a large family on a farm in Minnesota I have never been impressed by young people who are too clever by half and often look down with disdain on mere mortals-Theroux and Bob Dylan being two prime examples.
    That said, given the Coyne overview and some tolerance of the snotty that I have developed in my old age, I shall give Theroux another go and see if I can find a few pearls amongst all the oyster shells on Reef Theroux. Maybe I will find something to savor.

    • John Chromy – I recommend Theroux’s The Lower River (2012) about an RPCV who in he older years goes back to his Peace Corps town.

  • Thanks, John, for these memories of your various encounters with Theroux. It reminded me of what my literature professor at college told me just before I left for my Peace Corps service in Chad. “Survive Chad, and no matter what happens to you the rest of your life, you’ll always be able to say, ‘This may be tough, but I made it through Chad. I’m stronger than this’.” He was right. As I battle cancer now, I reflect back on how Peace Corps service toughened me for the adventures ahead, and even if cancer wins, I know that I too consider myself “always a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

  • John, Thanks for this insightful profile of the early years of Theroux. As you know, it was Tom Miller’s search for an author to complete the remembrances book about Moritz Thomsen he worked on with Theroux which connected me with Theroux and inspired the book I’m looking to publish at this time, “The Moritz Thomsen Reader.” Theroux has commented about some of my articles about Moritz including the one in “WorldView” on “Living Poor.” I am still trying to convince him to write the introduction to “The Moritz Thomsen Reader”, but he’s in great demand today with the “Mosquito Coast” film on HBO–and his nephew in the star role no less and yet another book on the way.

    I’ve reviewed many of his books including the un-proofed manuscripts of “Figures in a Landscape” and “Under the Wave of Waimea,” his latest–which you helped access. All of my reviews of my favorite Theroux books are on my website.

    Although I didn’t turn to writing until later in my career, I recognized and embraced some of the same attitudes and decisions that Theroux made in his early days as a PCV and recognize how they would inform my career choices and writing projects. As Theroux reaches his 80th year, I appreciated his response to the expectations of his growing old which you can find “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey” which is classic Theroux:

    “In the casual opinion of most Americans, I am an old man, and therefore of little account, past my best, fading in a pathetic diminuendo while flashing his AARP card; like the old in American generally, either invisible or someone to ignore rather than respect, who will be gone soon, and forgotten, a gringo in his dégringolade.

    “Naturally, I am insulted by this, but out of pride I don’t let my indignation show. My work is my reply, my travel is my definance…”
    Thanks again for sharing your insights one of the most prolific RPCV authors.
    Mark

  • John,
    Thank you for sharing those wonderful insights about Theroux with us! While reading it, some of your descriptions of the man and his craft reminded me of Hemingway. Anyway, he’s one of the greats, and we’re all fortunate to have enjoyed and been influenced by his writing.
    Best,
    Jim

  • What an amazing overview of Paul Theroux’s life, John. You might consider writing his biography.

    I fell in love with Theroux decades ago and, actually, maybe it was his writing that inspired me, in part, to go to Senegal with Peace Corps. His account of his relationship with V.S. Naipul, “In Vidya’s Shadow,” is a masterpiece of agonized revenge against a genius who, while being a mentor, also taught Theroux about aspects of being a despicable human being.

    Then there was “Dark Star Safari,” where he travels by train from Egypt, back to Malawi and south. His last paragraph was something to the effect that all development schemes,ngos, corrupt governments come and go, but it’s still “the bare-ass African who keeps struggling to survive.”

    I know a lot about Theroux, but you have added a lot of surprising material to my store of information. I so thank you for that, and will keep this piece among my literary treasures.

    Love & Peace, Leita

  • In Leita Kaldi Davis comment she refers to Dark Star Safari by quoting the end of the book where Theroux concludes that it is the “bare-ass African” who is the “real Africa.” A close reader will remember that his reference to the “bare ass African” is about the Malawians he encountered when he went through the area that was actually my post as a PCV in 68-70. Paul loved that area because it was so remote and inhospitable (mosquitos that were so bad and the heat and humidity in the hot season so unbearable that a posting there was considered a “hardship post” by the Malawian civil service) it had remained traditional because no missionaries would live there and the Sena were “difficult.” Years later Theroux first wrote a long piece for Esquire, I believe, about this area I had been posted (no whites had lived there before me or since), and he expanded it into The Lower River (see Marian Haley Beil’s post) and used me and my frequent returns and experiences in the village in which I lived as the jumping off device for the book. Paul created a fictional fantastical story that quickly had no reference to me and became Paul’s Heart of Darkness. Before it came out I was so afraid Paul would “put it on the map” and “travelers” would seek it out. Thankfully, either the book or Paul’s description of the area did not fulfill my fear. When I could emotionally disconnect from what he had done, I liked the book a lot.

  • Thanks, John, for sharing these insights about Paul Theroux . . . the man and the legend. My only connection with the story is through Mike McCone, the first PC Country Director in Malawi, who got crosswise with the US Ambassador there and was sent home. Before his appointment, Mike and I worked together in the Africa Regional Office of Peace Corps headquarters, and he asked me to join him in Malawi as a Field Rep. I was excited by the offer, because I liked Mike, and all my previous efforts to get overseas had been blocked by Shriver’s edict that anyone appointed as a field staff — under the age of 30 at the time — must have served as a PCV. I had not been a volunteer, but had worked for the regional office for two years, had accompanied PCVs to West Africa twice, and was dying to get an overseas assignment. McCone was just 31, so finding younger field staff created an opening for me. In addition, Mike, the Peace Corps’ golden boy from San Francisco, was the only Country Director who had the courage to challenge Shriver’s “no non-PCV” mandate.

    As it turned out, I didn’t start the interview process for the job for a couple of reasons. We were about to have our first child in September of that year, and were warned against delivering a baby in Blantyre, Malawi. It was also not clear that I could get clearance from all those PCW types still dedicated to honoring Shriver’s dictates. So I jointed the War on Poverty in Eastern Kentucky instead. But I’ve long wondered how the Malawi assignment might have turned out. My own anti-war views had begun to harden about the time that Theroux and the other Malawi PCVs angered the Ambassador with their newsletter and demonstrations. So I hope I would have been at the barricades with them, and probably sent home like Mike McCone. At any rate, thanks for clarifying what happened then, and for the look at Paul Theroux’ career since.

  • Fact check: The 1989 Founders Day Dinner where you meet Theroux at the DC Willard Hotel. It was not organized by Tim Carroll. It was my idea; I was the Dinner Chair and I worked my ass off. Tim Carroll collected the proceeds and forever thanked me for “saving” the organization. The following year I organized a second dinner and the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers was so mis- managed and broke, they paid their own salaries first with the money collected and stiffed the caterers! Meanwhile, learned a great deal in the article and Gordon Radley’s comments about Theroux whom I have always found friendly and charming in person.

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