AS a young man, Paul Theroux spent two years in Nyasaland – now Malawi – working for the American Peace Corps. It proved to be one of the key experiences of his life, something he has kept coming back to in both his novels and travel books.
The Lower River
by Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, £18.99
On the surface, Ellis Hock, the main character in The Lower River, looks like a lightly veiled version of Theroux himself. Hock, too, has spent time in Nyasaland as a student – “the happiest years of his life”.
He also lives in Medford, Massachusetts, where Theroux grew up. Except that nothing in Theroux’s work is ever this simple; constantly, he plays with people’s assumptions of what is and isn’t autobiographical, and with ideas of fictional and non-fictional truth.
Here Hock, who has run a menswear shop in Medford for 35 years, takes himself back to Malawi after his marriage falls apart. With no wife, just one friend and a greedy-guts daughter who’s only after his money, he looks back in anguished befuddlement, hankering after the innocence he once found in Malawi: “Africa cast a green glow in his memory.”
On a whim, he travels back to the isolated village where he once lived. But what Hock finds appals him. This is a land that has lost any innocence it once possessed. Gangs of feral children roam about carrying pangas, Aids is rife and very uncharitable aid workers – another favourite Theroux subject – keep everyone in a state of slavish dependence with the promise of more aid parcels.
The woman Hock fell in love with all those years ago – and whom he’s dreamed of ever since – now looks “like a market mammy”. She warns him that “They will eat your money and when your money has gone, they will eat you”, but Hock, still clinging to his illusions, ignores her – with predictably dire consequences.
Soon he’s effectively a prisoner in his former Eden, steadily being milked of everything he possesses. First his money goes and then his identity, leaving him drifting about like a ghost – “a wisp of diminishing humanity with nothing in his pockets”.
As you’d expect, there is some terrific writing here. Theroux’s senses are always on full alert: he writes about sunlight “spanking” the surface of the water, about the “sweetish, feety smell of the people” and about one boy whose trousers are torn “exposing the muffin of one skinny buttock”.
But however vivid its images, The Lower River never hardens into dramatic focus. In part, this is because there isn’t really enough material here to sustain a novel. Instead, it reads like a distended short story – and a pretty predictable one at that.
Hock too is a rather watery character; he has his innocence and his disillusion, yet not a lot in between. The result is a book that hums with life around the edges but is peculiarly lacking in it at the centre.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West