What strikes me now rereading Girls At Play is how Theroux did not linger with prose on the beauty of Africa, as he has quite wonderfully uses his evocative skills in other books and essays. In those early books he does not wax and wane as RPCV writers tend to do (including myself) on descriptions of the landscape. In those three novels, he was more interested in the play of personalities in Africa than the lay of the land.
Theroux’s third novel on Africa is Jungle Lovers which focuses on Malawi, looking at the changing political and social climate of the country. It came about because of what happened to him when he was teaching at the university in Kampala. “Jungle Lovers was the result of my departure from Africa,” Paul writes. “In 1968, after five years in Malawi and Uganda, my wife and I were attacked by rioting students in Kampala. After that, 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.'”
He went to Singapore to teach and where he said he was forbidden to write about Singapore, so he wrote about Malawi. Writing only at night and weekends, and in secret, and having also contracted dengue fever, it took him two years to finish the novel.
“That was in 1971,” says Paul. “Now rereading Jungle Lovers (in 1996), I am struck by its peculiar humor and violence. Some of it is farce and some tragedy….I had gone to Africa believing that political freedom would create social change. Five years did not change much, and now more than twenty-five years later this novel of futility and failed hopes seems truer than ever. That was my mood on leaving Africa. I was younger then. Now I should say that it takes a long time for change to come about, and change ought always to come from within. Outsiders, even the most well-intentioned in Africa, are nearly always meddlers.”
This novel and his other two about Africa are available in a collection On The Edge of the Great Rift: Three Novels of Africa published as a Penguin paperback in 1996.
In his introduction to these three early books Theroux would sum up what his African experience meant to him, not much unlike what happened to his innocent PCV B.J. in Girls at Play. “I was in my twenties in the sixties,” Paul writes in the Preface, “and I think my African novels are very much of their time. Many Africans countries had just become independent; colonialist were going home; volunteer teachers–and insurance agents and revolutionaries–were arriving and wondering what would happen next. No one realized that the darkness they found was the long shadow of Africa’s past.”
Theroux keeps returning to Africa, as if love for the continent is something he picked up in Malawi, a tropical disease much like malaria that somehow wouldn’t let go of his soul. In 2003 he wrote the travel book, Dark Start Safari; ten years later another travel book, The Last Train to Zona Verde; and then in 2012, The Lower River, a novel.
Writers or not, all of us who were once in Africa live with that experience, trying, I think, to understand ourselves at that time of our lives, mulling over the years, wondering still: was is worth it? Was it of value to the country? And what, if anything did we leave behind of value at our site?
In one way, Paul Theroux does answer that question about the worth of the Peace Corps, not in his books, but an interview. In May 2013, after the publication of The Last Train to Zong Verde, he was interviewed by Everett Potter’s on his Travel Report website. Potter said to Paul: The singer Bono of U2 comes up for some barbed comments in the book – a “ubiquitous meddler,” you call him – and other do-gooders, charities and aid agencies fare no better. Why do these types get under your skin so much?
To this question, Theroux replied: “Because to improve their image they present themselves as saviors in places that are quite capable of saving themselves, and they distort the reality of life in Africa. I wish they would either join the Peace Corps or else go away.”
After all these years, after fifty years since he was a teacher on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and after having traveled, lived, and written all over the world, it seems Theroux still carries the Peace Corps flag.
If I were with the Peace Corps, I’d suggest they’d make use of Theroux’s comment in their next recruitment campaign.