Mark Ashurst

Never go back

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The Lower River

Paul Theroux

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 269, £

Doctor Livingstone is said to have found the swamps of Elephant Marsh impenetrable. Ellis Hock has no such trouble. A long flight, hired car and motorcycle taxi carry the kindly American across the Malawian hinterland, where the Shire river feeds the Zambezi at its border with Mozambique. Lured by the ‘green glow’ of memory, Hock returns gratefully to the cluster of mud huts where, in the bright dawn of Independence, he spent four years as a graduate volunteer in the US Peace Corps.

Now 62, every day of Hock’s adult life — as the nattily dressed owner of a menswear store in small-town Massachussetts — has been freighted with nostalgia. He recalls the local language, Sena. He remembers a capacity for happiness, an idea of the future. But prospects have receded. The school house which Hock once helped to build has become a refuge for witchdoctors and snakes. His consignment of textbooks is redundant. So too are the Bible and Shakespeare, those desert-island staples which the younger Hock impressed upon his students.

Malabo in the 21st century is a republic of thieves. ‘When your money is gone, they will eat you,’ warns Gala, the stooped and toothless former schoolteacher that Hock once dreamed of marrying. Like a frog simmering to death in a slowly heated pan, he ignores her advice to escape while he can. A dwindling stash of kwacha notes postpones his fate at the hands of the scheming chief Manyenga. Only the loyalty of Zizi, Gala’s granddaughter, sustains him. A flat-footed virgin angel, she unwraps her chitenje to dance naked as Hock gasps with malarial fever.

Where Hock is disorientated, Paul Theroux is confidently at home. The depredations of the village are a theme to which he has returned, sporadically, in both novels and non-fiction — most recently in his 2008 travelogue Dark Star Safari. Even without his intrepid legwork, The Lower River is familiar terrain. As the title implies, Malabo lies about 40 years downstream from A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul’s prophetic account of 1970s Zaïre. Hock’s torment is a gentler variation on the romantic transgressions which preoccupy the books of another Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee.

Between these long literary shadows, Theroux uncovers vivid new aspects of the white man’s burden. He feels only disdain for the fortified convoys of the global aid industry. Development is a charade of double-speak: ‘You are a good example for partnering,’ growls Manyenga, plotting vengeance for the loss of his driving job at the Agence Anonyme. Pop stars descend by helicopter, deaf to the mayhem and humiliations in their wake. In one Lilliputian scene, Hock is menaced by a feral pack of juvenile Aids orphans. This is modernity too.

For all his moral acuity, Theroux’s vision is defiantly myopic: ‘Africa didn’t exist, except as a metaphor for trouble in the minds of complacent busybodies elsewhere,’ declares Hock. While Theroux sees that cynicism has strengthened Africans, he is reluctant to concede that other forces may be at work. There is no clue here to Africa’s tumultuous democratisation, no fallout from the liberating effects of its mobile-phone boom, no comment on the proliferating new roads and railways sent from Beijing in exchange for mining rights and free trade. That future remains invisible, as the village sinks deeper in a quicksand of isolation and despair.

Mark Ashurst’s radio documentary series, The Congo, is available from the BBC World Service online archive.