Paul Theroux, who lived in Africa as it emerged from colonialism to independence in the 1960s, has moved from hope and promise to disillusionment and despair. He was in the Peace Corps in Malawi, then taught at Makerere University in Uganda. Three of his early novels (1968-71), as well as his travel book Dark Star Safari (2003), were set in Africa.
Theroux’s fictional hero, Ellis Hock, his marriage and clothing business finished, idealistically and impulsively decides to return to the impoverished village in southern Malawi, where, as a volunteer, he had built a clinic and school and been blissfully happy. But he now finds that Africa “looked chewed, bitten, burned, deforested and dug up,” and mourns “the village that had disappeared utterly, its school buildings fallen, its well gone dry, its spirit vanquished.”
The attractive African woman he had loved in his youth is now old and battered. The villagers, dominated by the oppressive chief Festus, steal all of Hock’s money and meagre possessions and hold him captive. He imagines they will let him go when he has nothing more to give, but learns that their extortion is infinite. After only a few months, he is reduced to a feverish and decrepit state, senile and waiting for death.
Like Grabot in André Malraux’s The Royal Way and Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Hock is trapped in a remote and barbaric part of the tropics. In an echo of Waugh’s novel, Hock is not informed that a potential rescuer had unexpectedly turned up when he was ill and sleeping. The last half of this exciting novel describes the failed attempts of the weak and dispirited Hock, furious and bitter about his own naiveté and self-deception, to escape. He tries the river to Mozambique, which strands him in a village of starving children; a helicopter distributing aid doesn’t see him in the crush of people; foreign workers at an aid depot refuse to help him.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad compared the Congo River to “an immense snake uncoiled.” Theroux also writes “the river is a snake,” and vividly describes the serpents: “a puff adder lay like a strange misshapen hose, tensed and swelling, its blunt flat head lifted from the gritty floor, its eyes glinting at them.” Captured and displayed around his arms by the captive Hock, they play a crucial role in the novel as food, weapons, guards, threats, “thunderbolt” retaliations, saviours and means of escape, as well as a way of displaying his jungle wisdom, magical mastery and sexual power.
The international aid organization also plays a symbolic role in the novel. It is publicized by white pop stars, the man wearing cowboy gear, the woman in a skintight suit. They invade the bush in a helicopter, fling out food that is immediately stolen from the desperate recipients, live in a lavish modern compound that excludes Africans, send electrical ovens and mops to places that have no electricity, and have their truck tires slashed by resentful villagers. “Forty years of aid and charities and NGOs had taught [local people] that only self-interested outsiders trifled with Africa, so Africa punished them for it.”
Hock’s only friend is the servant Zizi, granddaughter of his first love, whom he first sees bathing seductively in the river. She coats herself with white flour and, as the ghost of a white woman, dances before him to soothe his anguish and show her love. He sends her on a dangerous mission and feels guilty about subjecting her to risk. Theroux’s dominant theme, like George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, is that you can neither recover lost youth nor recapture old memories.
Theroux is one of the best novelists now writing about Africa. The Lower River is elegantly written, captures authentic African speech and is filled with vivid details. When a hippo opens its wide jaws, “Hock could see the reddish flesh of the mouth and the blunt pegs of its thick round teeth and the raw mottled skin of its fat body.” Theroux’s best novel since Saint Jack and The Mosquito Coast is a riveting read, pure pleasure, and would make a great film.
Jeffrey Meyers has recently published biographies of Samuel Johnson, Arthur Miller and John Huston.