Paul Theroux’s Novels of Africa

My recent blog on novels that featured ‘Peace Corps fictional characters’ has generated some interest in novels written by RPCVs with Peace Corps characters. And that, naturally, leads us to Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65).

Theroux’s first three novels were set in Africa: Fong and the Indians (1968); Girls at Play (1969); Jungle Lovers (1971). Years later the books were combined into a single edition from Penguin (1996) and published as On The Edge of the Great Rift: Three Novels of Africa.

In the Preface to this volume, Theroux writes: “At the age of twenty-two, hoping to avoid being drafted into the US army, but also wishing to see the world, I joined the Peace Corps. When I went to Malawi in 1963 it was called the Nyasaland Protectorate.”

After the Peace Corps and his ‘dismissal,” which he has written about elsewhere, he went to Uganda and signed a four-year contract to teach at Makerere University, which at the time, was one of the great universities in Africa. There he met V.S. Naipaul. And there he met his first wife. “Uganda was a green wilderness of great beauty. I was self-sufficient, and I had fallen in love with the English woman whom I was to marry. In this mood, I began writing about the Chinese man who ran the grocery store around the corner from where I lived in Wandegeya….The Chinese man, his grocery store, his Indian competitors, his African customers–these were my characters in Fong and the Indians.

His second African novel was Girls at Play. It came from his visits to a girls’ school in Kenya where his future wife was teaching. “I courted her,” he writes, “by driving hundreds of miles on rutted roads, from Kampala to her bush school north of Nairobi.” One of the characters in this novel was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Theroux called her “B.J.’ and he writes, “She (B.J.) knew she was dense, but was also curious, a wondering that was at times harmful, for no second-hand description, no matter how detailed, could satisfy it. It was this wondering insulated in layers of density that  had led her to join the Peace Corps and come to Africa.”

Theroux’s third novel was written five years after he arrived in Africa. His new wife and Paul were attacked by rioting students in Kampala. “After that,” he wrote in the Preface, “I lost my will to teach any students; my confidence was gone. I said to my African colleagues: ‘You do it. I have no business here.’ I decided to leave for good and took a job teaching in Singapore.”

In Singapore, he said, he was forbidden to write about that nation, so he wrote about Africa, and that was Jungle Lovers. Leaving Singapore, and teaching, he wrote his Singapore novel, Saint Jack.  Then sums up, “I never took another salaried job.”

He would write about Africa, particularly Malawi, in two other books: My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996).  One a novel, one not. Both are about Paul Theroux, fact and fiction.

In the summer of 1994 I picked up a copy of the literary publication, Granta#48, because the issue was all about Africa. Inside there was a long essay  written by Theroux entitled, “The Lepers of Moyo.” I’m not sure what was fact,  what was fiction. The Notes on Contributors simply stated said Paul Theroux was “stationed in Malawi as a member of the Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965. In 1988, he returned to Ntakataka, but the Leper Mission–now that the ‘last disease in Africa’ had been eradicated–had been closed.”

The article is accompanied by a photograph of Theroux taken in June 1968 when he was director of the Mekerere University Centre for Adult Studies in Kampala. It is a photograph of Paul with 11 members of his English class, all officers in the Ugandan army.  The students/soldiers are dressed in serious Western suits and ties. Paul, as if he were still a PCV, is wearing an open neck, untucked shirt, no tie, dark sun glasses. He is without socks and wearing brown sandals that appear to have been picked up in the local Kampala market.

Theroux’s time with the lepers of Moyo took place between his first and second year at Blantyre, Malawi. Paul writes, “During the African school holidays, we Peace Corps teachers were told to get jobs or do something useful. I could have stayed at my school and catalogued books, or led a team of brush-cutters for the new sports field. Then 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. ‘The leprosarium,’ he said. I had never heard this English word before and I was bewitched by it.”

Theroux left Blantyre for Moyo, boarding a train in the African darkness just before dawn. “It was like climbing into the body of a huge, dusty monster.”

When he reached Ntakataka, the train station for Moyo, he was met by a priest. “He wore a dusty, white cassock and looked at me–fondly I thought–with a smile. “Good to see you,’ he said. ‘You play cards?'”

More than cards waited for Theroux that summer of  ’64. He was sick with a fever in Moyo, an African fever that had no name. He watched helpless as a young priest went crazy in the bush. He attempted to teach English to lepers. And there is an American nun who dresses in the white robe and bonnet of the severe order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart but went naked under her habit.  They meet up once in her convent room. There is more, of course. There is always more with Theroux. He gets involved with a young leper and they make love. They speak to each other in Chinyanja as they lay together on a mat tossed down on the hard-packed dirt in her mud hut where, Theroux writes,”dust trickled from the straws in the thatch bundles of the roof.”

Did any of this happen? Did all of this happen during that summer project at the leprosarium at Moyo? The card-playing priests? The nun naked under her Sisters of the Sacred Heart habit? Making love to a leper?

Let me just add that my secondary project up north in Ethiopia in the summer of ’63 was not that exciting, and also, as a novelist, I might add: never trust any of us,  especially when we say we are telling you the truth.

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