Paradise lost

The Lower River, by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99, 336 pages

Ellis Hock is the sort of small-time American businessman familiar from the novels of Philip Roth. A third-generation Italian, Ellis has spent his life running the family-owned gentlemen’s outfitters in the Boston suburb of Medford. Then things fall apart.

His wife, Deena, discovers emails Ellis has sent to female customers – more in pursuit of companionship than eroticism – and they get a divorce; his daughter, Chicky, meanwhile, demands her “cut” of his will upfront: “If I don’t get it now, I’ll never see it.” Discarded, useless and alone, Ellis decides to return to the place where he spent “the happiest years of his life”: Malabo, a village in Lower River, Malawi, where as a young Peace Corps volunteer he taught English to the Sena people, helped to build a school and fell in love with a local girl, Gala.

When he was first in the country, Ellis found hard work and community spirit, and sensed a bright future as Nyasaland became Malawi. On his return almost 40 years later he discovers that Malabo has become a microcosm of the corruption, mismanagement and fear that have dogged the continent since the wave of independence in the 1960s. The school is a snake-infested ruin, HIV/Aids is rife, a shadowy NGO called L’Agence Anonyme operates out of a “charity zone” between Malawi and Mozambique, organising celebrity food drops by helicopter and the village itself is ruled by a young, sinister and brilliantly drawn headman named Festus Manyenga.

Theroux is a masterly observer. Over the course of celebrated travelogues such as Dark Star Safari, in which he charted his own return to Malawi, and in novels set both in Africa and beyond, he has proved himself highly attuned to the character, speech, traditions, nuances and foibles of people and places. Ellis’s story is also, in part, autobiographical: Theroux is from Medford and was a young Peace Corps teacher in Malawi. Yet this is not simply travel writing wrapped in an autobiographical novel: The Lower River is both a fable of decline and a chilling thriller.

Ellis arrives with a bag of money and it doesn’t take long before Festus comes knocking, requesting a contribution for a new roof for the hut in which Ellis will stay. He also provides a 16-year-old girl, Zizi, to cook and clean for him and Ellis’s motley retinue grows to include a dwarf, Snowdon, a Caliban figure with a green plug of a tongue and twisted limbs. Snowdon’s only word is “Fee-dee-dom” (freedom), which becomes an ironic coda of increasing urgency as Ellis begins to see the truth in the warning offered by Gala: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.”

Theroux builds the tension to a claustrophobic pitch, as Ellis’s visit descends into a sort of hell. The message is clear – and bleak: “altruism was unknown. Forty years of aid and charities and NGOs had taught them that. Only self-interested outsiders trifled with Africa, so Africa punished them for it.” Ellis was a fool to come, to believe that he would be greeted with open arms and that the snake-infested Malabo would have remained the Eden he recalled.

The Lower River is a dark and disenchanted examination of Africa in the 21st century, and a heart-breaking portrait of a ruined community. That it is underpinned by Theroux’s deep and undimmed affection for the continent only makes his novel all the more powerful.

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