In the Contributors’ Notes we learn that Paul Theroux has work of fiction, “A Dead Hand,” forthcoming, but we are not told whether this story, “The Lower River,” is an excerpt (or an extraction, to more accurately describe what TNY often does with novels). In fact, though, A Dead Hand is set in Calcutta, and as far as I can tell the current story has nothing to do with it. Good.
This is the story of Altman, a former volunteer teacher who is returning to Malawi many years later—after his life has crumbled. (Theroux himself was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi.) He remembers the customs and the superstitions, so when he arrives, the village where he’d lived seems familiar, but he soon realizes that it has changed. The people he knew are dead, although he doesn’t reflect on this for long, and the new people who greet him seem to be the grandchildren of the village elders from long ago. He is treated, at least superficially, like a chief. Meanwhile, the actual chief, a young man who once was a driver for an NGO, uses the language of international development—agenda and pipeline and so on—to drain Altman’s cash from him. And Altman attempts to use the people’s fear of snakes to manipulate them, as he did years ago. But Altman contracts malaria, his money disappears, and he sinks deeper into the village. His “agenda” is forgotten, his dream of helping the village abandoned.
Although this story is intriguing and well written, and very suspenseful, it is typical of the reason I’ve given up on Theroux and no longer buy or read his books. Particularly in his non-fiction, but also in his fiction, his condescension toward the developing world is generally in evidence. Here, the entire village is out to swindle Altman, and I suspect that Theroux views all of Africa that way, and probably considers it inevitable. I do not know Africa, but I do know Asia, and I know that Theroux has written about Asia in similar terms. I recognize that this is fiction, and that it actually could happen in the way this story describes, but I see this as Theroux’s indictment of international development—-and I happen to think he’s wrong. And while Theroux has traveled a great deal, I've seen development from a professional angle.
September 14, 2009: “The Lower River” by Paul Theroux