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Book Review

The Lower River by Paul Theroux

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Publisher: Penguin paperback

1 of 1 A disturbing tale set in darkest Africa from Paul Theroux
A disturbing tale set in darkest Africa from Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has made quite a name for himself as travel writer and writer of fiction, through some 45 books in a forty-year career or so. Usually, writers working in both fields of literary endeavour end up specialising in one or other genre.

The much-celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, only published one novel, a melodramatic thing called The Violins of St Jacques which dates very badly. Colin Thubron, has published at least one novel, but he has made his name with a very sophisticated form of travel writing in various books.

By contrast, Theroux, it is safe to assume, has achieved a striking degree of popularity for his many published novels - two of which have been successfully filmed, The Mosquito Coast (starring the late Ben Gazarra) and Doctor Slaughter. But his vivid travel books have always had their own caché too. Thirty years ago or so, The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express were perhaps better known among a certain readership than the novels.

An intelligent, intensely curious and perceptive writer, in the last decade, Paul Theroux has written two very fine books based on travels in Africa, Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde (see elsewhere on these pages for my review.)

Theroux used to be ocasionally a little waspy and supercilious in his travel writing, but reading Last Train to Zona Verde, you are struck by the patiently mellow and resigned Theroux. Rather than railing against Angola, he philosophically accepts the hardships of making his way through that bleak, hopeless country.  The 70-year old traveller pushes himself to the limit until he realises there is no percentage in going any further towards the Congo. So he does something he never did, turns around and goes home to America.

The fictional voice in The Lower River, his latest novel - just out in paperback - reminds one somehow of the Theroux of Last Train to Zona Verde. Fomer teacher Ellis Hock is returning after 40 years to a remote corner of Malawi where Theroux himself happily taught school for a number of years in the 1960s.

Both books are essentially about disappointment, albeit different experiences of such diasappointment. The Lower River is a compelling exploration of hopes raised and expectations dashed in all sorts of humiliating ways for Theroux's ill-starred protagonist. Hock has been a draper in Medford, Masschussetts but after his wife divorces him and his ungrateful daughter seeks her cut of the will - even before he dies - he decides to return to the small village of Malabo, in a remote corner of Malawi.  

He once taught there, close to The Lower River of the title, not far from the border with Mozambique. The River Zambesi is relatively close - indeed one of Theroux's characters prefers to think, not of borders between Mozambique and Malawi, but of a notional country called Zambesia.

As a young man, Ellis Hock helped build the local school and he fell madly in love with a a tall elegant young local woman. That brief affair has haunted him ever since, despite her betrothal to a civil servant.

Now, as he approaches the autumn of his years, it dawns on Hock that that the only place he was ever truly happy was that village off the beaten track in Malawi. The appeal of its sheltered life and customs and its physical beauty resurfaces insistently and he realises that Medford, Massachussetts no longer has a claim on him.

His arrival back in to Malabo seems to go well initially, until a kind of collective bafflement settles among the locals about the motives for the return. While his fame goes before him as the benevolent white man of legend, this very legacy, which he uniquely carries, becomes a kind of trap. Another kind of trap is bound up with handing out the local currency too freely, as he does, to perhaps buy his way into the affections of the ancestors of the boys he taught. As things go seriously awry for Hock, the story works steadily and insidiously to its inevitable climax.

Paddy Kehoe

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