Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Lower River

"All news out of Africa is bad," Paul Theroux says at the beginning of Dark Star Safari (2003), and in Malawi he takes the news personally.

He taught school there as a young man with the Peace Corps, and now 35 years later he finds a betrayal of that hopeful time. Things have only gotten worse.

The country is poorer, the people more venal, his old school a shambles. He decides that international aid is the chief culprit, and discards a cherished desire to "spend a week or so teaching, helping out, doing something useful." He vows never to send another book to Malawi and concludes that "only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa."

That visit fuelled a recent novel, The Lower River (2012), whose protagonist, like Theroux, grew up in Medford and taught in the Lower River district of Malawi.

For Ellis Hock, those were "the happiest years of his life." He "craved that simple, older world he’d known as a young teacher, which was also a place in which hope still existed, because it was a work in progress." And so at the age of 62 Hock returns to Malawi hoping to recapture those magical years which still "cast a green glow in his memory."

Instead the trip goes from bad to worse with terrifying inevitability. The tension does not let up until the final page, and fulfills the promise of Theroux's picture on the dustjacket. He never smiles in these photos, but in this one he looks positively menacing. His glare is a challenge delivered from a blurry tropical river, as though warning the reader he means to exact full revenge for the mess the world has made of Africa.

Fiction vs Non-Fiction

I usually prefer Theroux's travel books to his novels, but the way in which Dark Star and Lower River overlap gave the novel an added dimension that I really enjoyed. For example, Theroux travels by dugout canoe down the Shire and Zambesi Rivers and into Mozambique, during which he hears vague mention of "bad people" on the river. When Hock makes the same journey, these "bad people" are brought to life in the novel's most chilling episode.

In Dark Star Theroux writes, "I seldom saw relief workers who did not in some way remind me of people herding animals and throwing food to them, much as rangers did to the animals in stricken game parks." In Lower River he dramatizes this observation.

In Dark Star Theroux notices a "small ugly man" with a "hideous face, bumpy with boils and growths and seeping wounds, and withered fingers." He was like "the Fool in a Shakespeare play, the court jester who is licenced to do or say anything he likes." He is the model for a Lower River dwarf named Snowdon, who plays a key role at the novel's climax.

Some reviewers have found echoes of Heart of Darkness (and Handful of Dust) in Lower River. Any such resemblances strike me as rather superficial, though they did remind me of that dustjacket photo, and the observation of an old friend in Dark Star, who is surprised by Theroux's griping: "He suspected that I had turned into Mister Kurtz."

Medford and Malabo

Malabo is the name of the village that Hock travels to, but before he gets there Theroux sets up several sly scenes that foreshadow Africa.

Hock meets a flaky New Ager who attends a Witch Camp and takes part in a Mud Ritual. She also owns a python that's been acting strangely. Hock's warning is similar to the one he himself receives in Malabo: "They will eat your money and then they will eat you."

Hock and his wife have several sessions with a marriage counselor named Doctor Bob, whose effectiveness is on a par with that of a snake doctor in Malabo.

In a delicious irony, Hock throws his cellphone into the Mystic River flowing though Medford.

A Nest of Snakes

The most obvious culprits in Lower River are a relief organization patronized by celebrities, and a former employee, now a village headman, who mulcts Hock of his last cent through artful fawning and appeals to tribal custom.

But Hock is also complicit, for he considers himself an expert on Malawi despite his decades-long absence. In fact, his delusions extend back to his first visit when, motivated by local superstition, he gets the loopy idea of catching snakes as a way of impressing villagers. It earns him the dubious name of Snake Man.

In America his knowledge seems impressive, but in Africa it becomes suspect. He refers to puff adders as "not especially venomous," when in fact they are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other snake. And the casual way in which other deadly snakes are handled, or referred to -- mambas, boomslangs, the innocent-sounding twig snake -- exposes him as a chump.

His interest in snakes scuttles a couple of cherished dreams -- as a teacher, attaining an African woman he has fallen in love with ("Snakes are afraid of me," he tells her); and on his return, restoring his old school, which has fallen into ruin and become a "nest of snakes." Finding a black mamba there...

...he prodded it, let it whip and coil, and pressed its head with the end of the stick, quickly snatched, keeping its frothy mouth just above his fist. Then he brought it outside to show the boys, a trophy they'd remember.

The boys, who were sent by the headman to help clean up the school, flee with good reason, for the black mamba is one of the fastest and most lethal snakes in Africa.

It should be no surprise that Hock's hobby is viewed with suspicion by the villagers. A snake doctor is sent for and a snake dance performed. When the headman shows Hock the protective scars around his wrist, he says, "You see, we are not fearing you."

Perhaps even more interesting are the hands of the 16-year-old girl who risks her life for Hock. They are "scaly, slick...almost reptilian."

Further Reading

It is worth remembering that Theroux is a crafty and provocative writer who enjoys confounding readers with, as he puts it in Hotel Honolulu, "autobiographical fantasies."

Chapters 14-16 are the relevant ones in Dark Star.

An early excerpt from Lower River appeared in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux's alter ego is named Altman.