Sometimes it takes a village, sometimes the village takes you. The latter scenario is the fate of Ellis Hock, the gentle, decent but clueless hero of The Lower River, Paul Theroux’s beautifully written, suspenseful new novel. A 62-year-old American who tries to return to his dream of an innocent African hamlet, Hock instead finds himself held hostage in its ruins.
Throughout a long-legged career as a fiction and travel writer, Theroux, who lives in Hawaii, has depicted many entitled Western wanderers in undeveloped countries, including, at times, himself. Dreamers, escapists, narcissists, opportunists, unreliable narrators with caustic voices burned by booze and cigarettes–you know, adventurers. When Theroux skewers his characters (and he can be cruel), you figure they had it coming, though you may flinch.
To his credit, Theroux is no sentimentalist. But he is a bit more tender than usual, and to good effect, in The Lower River. As it opens, Hock, the dapper, third-generation owner of a men’s haberdashery shop in Medford, Mass., is going through a divorce and thinking that his whole life, since he left Africa after a four-year stint as a rural volunteer, has been an anticlimax. Or is Africa just emblematic of his unfettered youth? After all, this is someone estranged from his wife, adult daughter and himself, who has always hated mirrors, who writes cell phone love notes to other women but never consummates an affair.
After he sells his failing business, a chance encounter with an acquaintance’s pet python, which Hock delivers to a zoo, propels his return to Malawi and the village of Malabo, where he was once known as Snake Man because of his ability to handle the creatures. He goes alone, without a cell phone (having thrown the incriminating device in the river.). He discovers that the school he built and where he taught has collapsed, and that NGOs with their haphazard disbursements of food aid have removed the villagers’ motivation to grow and catch their own. Malabo’s innocence is vanished. Its people have been discovered by the West and yet remain even more isolated than a hidden forest tribe because they are forsaken, ignored, and yet aware of it.
Sob stories and demands for money proliferate. “Yes, it was a shakedown.”
Although he first finds these villagers “different…from the people he’d lived among here years ago…changed, regressed drastically in their small subterranean hole in the world through which a river ran as dark as any in classical myth,” Hock comes to wonder if their innocence ever really existed. “That seemed to be a feature of life in the country: to welcome strangers, let them live out their fantasy of philanthropy–a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a welfare center…and then determine if in any of this effort and expense there was a side benefit–a kickback, a bribe…”
Realizing his mistake, Hock tries to leave, but is detained by the crafty 35-year-old headman, Festus Manyenga, who used to be a driver for “the Agency,” an NGO, and who hated the charity, Hock guesses, because “by their very presence they’d taken advantage of him.” A creeping, inexorable sense of doom infects Hock’s consciousness, heightened by a bout of malaria.
There is one exception: Zizi, a 16-year-old virgin who befriends him. “Zizi reminded him of a water bird, head erect, her arms tucked like wings, one skinny leg lifted and crooked against the other, like the elder sister of those stately herons at the edge of the Dinde Marsh, the thin upright birds planted in the mud on big feet.” As it turns out, Zizi is the granddaughter of Gaza, the fellow teacher with whom the young Hock had been desperately and platonically in love, despite a little hanky-panky interrupted by a snake. He still blames Gaza, now grown fat and decrepit but still refined of speech, for being a dutiful daughter and marrying a local man chosen by her parents, although he himself had left Africa to take over the family business in fulfillment of his dying father’s wish.
When he does break loose, in a madcap adventure in dugouts down the Lower River, Hock, like Gulliver, finds himself captive in a village of feral orphans whose parents died of AIDS. They live, barely, on food drops from an “Agency” helicopter.
One of the joys of this novel, in addition to its gripping, fast-paced story line, is a limpid prose that admits us unimpeded into this deep little pocket of Africa, to breathe its air and to see its people through Ellis’s unsophisticated eyes. And there is real tragedy here.
“….the embankment of beached canoes that had been hewn from ancient fat trees…thick-walled huts with cool interiors…the coherence of the tidy weeded gardens of millet and sorghum and pumpkins, and the veiled drapery of strung-up fishing nets; and most of all the welcome, the warm greeting that was without suspicion or threat; something golden in the greenery lighted by the river, the warmth that kept him hopeful all those years–gone, gone.”
Comparisons with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness come with the territory, but in The Lower River, Theroux returns to themes he explored decades ago in The Mosquito Coast. When Hock seeks rescue from “the Agency,” the charity turns him away, and, glimpsing his wild-haired, filthy reflection in their water tank, he is humiliated but redemptively amused. For it is ourselves we are looking for, it is self-understanding we need yet constantly run away from, when going as far abroad as we can.
Houghton Mifflin, 2012
330 pages $25