Paul Theroux's (Malawi 1963-65)The Lower River
Over the weekend I read Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Lower River. This novel is his most direct use of his Peace Corps experience. Paul’s first three novels: Waldo, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play all were East Africa based, but not about the Peace Corps. Girls at Play, set at a girls’ school in western Kenya, has a ‘Peace Corps character,’ and unhappy, Midwest woman, as I recall. I believe this is the first use of a ‘Peace Corps character’ in a work of fiction. (Mary-Ann Tyrone Smith’s (Cameroon 1965-67) Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman published in 1987, would be the first novel about a Peace Corps Volunteers.)
Later, in his collection of nonfiction pieces, Sunrise with Seamonsters, Paul republished a few of his essays that focused on the agency and Africa, and how he was kicked out of the corps.
Theroux wrote a wonderful ‘peace corps short story’ “White Lies” first published in Playboy in 1979. I republished it in a collection of fiction by RPCV entitled Living On The Edge, (Curbstone 1999 ). The story does not name the Peace Corps, but is about a young American in Malawi, teaching at a British secondary school. Paul also wrote a very creative nonfiction piece “The Lepers of Moyo” about his “summer project” as a PCV when he taught English at a Catholic leprosarium in Ntakataka, Malawi and met up with a wacky American women named Birdie who dressed up as a nun and went around naked under her habit. (Only Theroux would think of that clever metaphor.) That story was published in Granta #48 in the summer of 1994. You should look it up.
There are also longer fictional accounts of his Peace Corps experience in his two novels: My Secret History and My Other Life.
That said, The Lower River is Theroux’s first novel that uses as material his tour. Or better said, it is a novel about an RPCV who returns to his host country. It is a terrific read. For RPCVs who has “gone home” there are many echoes that ring true. Tom Wolfe wrote, ‘you can’t go home again’…but if you go home to Africa…watch out!
The plot simply is how a 62-year-old man leaves his failed marriage and his failing business (a clothing store) to return to Malawi where he once was a PCV. As a Volunteer, he had lived in a small village without electricity or running water. He had built a school, and there in Africa, he had “found love and respect.” It was the happiest time of his life.
Now, returning to Malawi, he finds poverty and AIDS and HCNs struggling to survive. Before long, the lives of the Africans ensnare him. That’s the core of the novel. Is this Paul’s conclusion about the work of the Peace Corps?
The book is packed with references of real events of that time and place. I got caught up, for example, in the main character remembering Emperor Haile Selassie’s trip to Malawi in August 1965. Paul was a PCV at the time and would have witnessed the celebration. He has pulled back those recollections to use in the novel. There is a lot of such 1960 African references in this novel. It is ‘material’ that he had hung onto and brought back full circle. Nothing is wasted on a writer.
There is something else that is true of those early years overseas. Paul is asked how his experience working for the Peace Corps in Malawi informed his novel. He replies: “A person should join the Peace Corps to learn something not to teach–and should come away from the experience with some wisdom, not having changed anyone, but more enlightened. The world used to be disconnected–no cellphones, no computers, no Internet. This made for cultural immersion. I did not make a phone call in the six years I was in African in the 1960’s–that was great, because I had to come to terms with the culture and learn the language. I was the better for being utterly out of touch.”
Also, and rather fascinating, at the creative core of the novel is Theroux’s own brush with danger that must have sparked this plot. When he was a PCV he met a friendly couple who invited him to visit their remote village. He agreed, only to realize later that they wouldn’t let him leave the village. He only got away when a stranger driving through the village, spotted him, and helped him escape.
See what a writer can do with a nugget of experience? Enough to build a fact-pace narrative. Well, you can if you are you are another Paul Theroux.
We will publish a review of The Lower River shortly on this site in the coming weeks. It is being written now by Tony D’Souza who published White Man several years ago, his very fine novel set in the Ivory Coast, and who is a writer that many consider the next Theroux.
Meanwhile, go out an buy a copy yourself and read what happens to Ellis Hock when he went back to his site and think: there but for the grace of God go I!
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By the way, The Lower River is also directly based on Theroux’s relatively recent experience revisiting his old village which is related in Dark Star Safari. That’s one of his great travelogues, and it doesn’t appear to have met with great success. He travels Cairo to Capetown overland, endlessly curious and talking to everyone, and washes up against tremendous disillusionment when he makes it back to his old village and school in Malawi. For my money, it’s better than this novel, because it’s inescapably real — and, unfortunately, depressing. It’s easy to dismiss the novel as goofy and self-indulgent; not the travelogue.
I would like to second “affetcher”‘s comment. If one has read “Dark Star Safari,” which recounts Theroux’s trip back through Malawi and the rest of east Africa, one can’t be surprised at this recent novel. The novel seems to flow directly from the travelogue, which paints a picture of near total desolation where there was once a possibility of prosperity.