The Lower River A novel by Paul Theroux
reviewed by Steven Woodruff
Mr. Theroux knows Africa. Along with two recent volumes of travel writing set in Africa and other published essays on African topics, he now has a new novel in print that draws on his four years as a Peace Corps teacher there during the sixties. The Lower River chronicles his return to modern-day Malawi following the breakup of his marriage and family in a search to reset the clock. The story is equal measure an attempt to blunt the present, while reviving memories of a time that once brimmed with hope and purpose. The brutality of the book is that Ellis Hock, Theroux’s main character, achieves none of that. Rather than putting things right, this time African will continue to unravel his life.
Not only has this current day Africa been drained of resources and stability during the intervening fifty years since the sweep of the independence movement, it has also, seemingly, been drained of decent people. The Lower River’s characters embrace a relentless array of bored Foreign Service personnel, expatriate hustlers, gangs of feral children, and predators who blow away Hock’s attempts to right his life. His quixotic efforts at redemption in a place where he was once a force for good degenerate finally into a toxic story of betrayal and enslavement that embraces parallels to Conrad’s Congo odyssey as well as Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But those comparisons don’t fully explain The Lower River’s appeal which relies on its own complex psychologies and layered storytelling.
When Hock first arrives in the bush village of Malabo he is shocked by its disintegration. The school in which he taught is a ruin. So are the people. A then young woman with whom he had a romantic connection is nearly unrecognizable, beaten down by an unforgiving life on the edges of civilization. She becomes an ally as does her granddaughter Zizi, a sixteen year old with whom Hock initiates a sublimated relationship. She and Hock eventually both become targets. And as Hock’s money dwindles both risk losing not only their freedom but their lives.
Theroux’s outlook on the political structures of modern Africa is openly critical, and despairing. Marooned on the Shire River on the Mozambique frontier he is tormented by a gang of orphan children shifting for themselves, victims of families destroyed by the AIDS epidemic. An NGO which plays a prominent role in the final chapters of the narrative operates more like a renegade, paramilitary force, than a relief organization. For Theroux, Africa is a place ruined as much by its colonial history as by misapplied, contemporary meddling and poverty. His outlook can be overwhelmingly harsh.
“None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the Africa of people, not of animals. And that was its oddity, because it looked chewed, bitten, burned, deforested, and dug up. A herd of elephants could eat an acre of trees in a day, leaving behind a mass of trampled, splintered limbs, yet that acre stayed green and grew back. But this human settlement was befouled, the greenery slashed and burned, or dragged away until only dirt and stones remained—a blight, a permanent disfigurement.”
The writing is tense. The last half of the book reads like a thriller. The focus on the relationship between Hock and Zizi verges on sentimentality but hints at more than it describes. The confrontations with the orphan gang are indeed frightening. There is one forcefully written scene in which Hock tries to fight his way through a mob at a helicopter relief drop. The observations and the fear all feel real.
Theroux has welded together his instinctual ability to describe his surroundings and slick storytelling in The Lower River. He doesn’t ask what is next for his main character. The escape has been too exhausting, and those memories of his early exploits have likely been erased for good.
(Last Train to Zona Verde and Dark Start Safari are Theroux’s most recent nonfiction writing on Africa. Other essays on Africa appear in Fresh Air Fiend. The Lower River is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow the link to read my review of The Last Train to Zona Verde)
Steven Woodruff 7/2013