Paul Theroux's recent novel, THE LOWER RIVER, follows sixty-something year old Ellis Hock back to Africa to connect with a time forty years ago, "the happiest years of his life", when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and teacher in a remote village in Malawi. On and off he has been dreaming about that time and place, returning to it in his mind when wandering through his hometown zoo; his memories flooding back with a strong sense of nostalgic longing. Now that his marriage has fallen apart, his business is in decline, he sells all and, almost secretly, embarks on a return visit to the village of his dreams, Malabo. Most of the novel follows Hock's arrival and time in Malawi and in "his remote village". Malawians and expats warn him: "nobody goes there", or "abandon all hope". Yet, it is exactly what Hock is seeking: a place not touched by development, a village that has stood still, frozen in time and that would welcome him as it did all those years ago.
Looking at the highly appreciative and admiring reviews on amazon.com and elsewhere, I realize that I may be in a small minority to regard this book mostly as a fictionalized version of chpaters from Theroux's travel book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown, where he describes his return to a remote region of Malawi that looks and feels very much like Malabo. Not surprisingly, the novel draws on the author's personal experiences, both as a traveler in the early twenty first century and as a Peace Corps volunteer there in his younger years. These close ties to physical realities, increased by the detailed descriptions of places and landscapes, make it difficult for this reader to conceive THE LOWER RIVER as a work of fiction alone. I am not fully willing to accept the authenticity of the narrative or the characters, in particular the Africans. While the story is told from Hock's perspective alone, the reader does not get a real sense of life in the community and beyond nor how the situation in the village deteriorated the way it did. Blame is touched on, but only superficially, almost in caricature style. Life beyond Hock's hut and his early morning walks are hazy background, the conditions in the villages only described as they affect Hock directly. The African characters don't come into their own; they are more like stereotypes for particular attitudes: the men and boys greedy, aggressive and devious, the women, young and old, subservient and quiet. Seeing everything through his romantic lens of a time long past where innocence and love was front and centre on his mind, Hock does not appear to make much effort to learn about Malabo's present circumstances or to understand what lies behind the hostile attitude of the community. The reader is in the role of an intimate observer of Hock's daily routines, his many frustrations and a few glimmers of hope. They can instil sympathy and compassion, but, as the narrative speed slows to a crawl and repetition, more likely, turn more and more to irritation. Hock comes across as somebody totally unprepared for his venture, or as one reviewer refers to as a typical "Innocent American abroad".
While the reader follows in great detail the ups and downs of Hock physical and mental state, I for one, missed a more discriminating portrayal of the village, its people and its challenges. The African characters are not fully developed and remain two dimensional. Malabo has been reduced to a state of paralysis due to the villagers' lethargy, caused by poverty, malnutrition, the spread of AIDS and a general lack of initiative. The village strong man, Manyenga, acts towards Hock both as a friend and an enemy. In response Hock turns increasingly passive, not really understanding or accepting what has happened to "his village". Is it possible for him to move beyond his longing for this world that no longer exists?
Influenced by my own experiences and background, I was not always willing to suspend disbelief in details of this story, starting with Hock's lack of the proper anti-malarial protection to his handling of his personal effects. Speaking the local language does not always make for good communication and Hock exemplifies this aptly. While the name Malabo may have been a fictional name for the village, the novel is set clearly against the backdrop of the actual country and towns, with real people with diverse beliefs and behaviours ... Their lives in today's world are much more complex than is depicted here. [Friederike Knabe]