Arts & Entertainment
In an African village, the allure of money carries a dangerous bite
BOOK REVIEW - The Lower River: A Novel, by Paul Theroux
People returning from the Peace Corps typically say that the good they did had minimal impact; the important change happened inside them.
Ellis Hock, the hero of Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River,” remembers his four years in the Peace Corps in the remote African village of Malobo as “hot, miserable, bug-ridden, swampy” — and the happiest years of his life.
When things in his hometown of Medford, Mass., suddenly fall apart, he heads back to Malobo, in Malawi, stopping only long enough to withdraw a large sum of money from the bank. He spends it on supplies for the school that he founded 40 years earlier, prepared to take up his role as a beneficent teacher once again.
The hopeful optimism of Malawi in the early ’60s has been replaced by a dark cynicism. The school sits abandoned and roofless, inhabited by snakes and orphaned boys. The elders who knew Hock and respected him are all dead. The villagers live one bad harvest away from starvation. His former girlfriend, prematurely aged and decrepit, warns him: “‘They will eat your money… When your money is gone they will eat you.’”
But Hock had been so confident of his welcome in the village, he has stranded himself there, without transportation or anyone from outside to check on him. Although the villagers, especially the headman, Manyenga, pretend to give him respect and call him their “father” and “chief,” he soon realizes that they won’t let him leave.
A businessman for four decades, Hock has relied on his social position all his life. “Hock enjoyed dressing well; it was a way of armoring himself against the world. He hid himself in beautifully made clothes.” Without social status, he has no idea who he is or how he can save himself.
As a teacher in the village in the past, Hock would catch snakes and keep them as pets. The current villagers have heard stories from their parents about this. But a snake handler is the next thing to a sorcerer in their culture. Manyenga shows Hock scars on his wrists, scars that protect him from snakes and therefore Hock’s power. “‘You see, we are not fearing you!’”
Hock thinks he can handle people as easily as he handles snakes. He assumes that having money and status give him the power to get people to do what he wants and that he can convince Manyenga to release him if he promises to bring back more money. A good capitalist, he even appeals to Manyenga’s market rationality by suggesting that otherwise there will be a “point of diminishing returns.” But the desperate people around him no longer trust Western promises or rationality.
Hock finds out why when he flees the village, ending up in a no-man’s land on the border populated by near-feral children whose parents have died from complications of AIDS. He is told, “‘This isn’t Malawi… It’s not Mozambique… It’s the charity zone.’” The zone is controlled by a secretive organization, L’Agence Anonyme (“The Anonymous Agency”), which flies in celebrities to have their pictures taken making food drops. Its manicured, fenced and guarded compound, miles from any road and accessible only by helicopter, looks like utopia to Hock after weeks in the miserable village. As an American, he expects to find help here; instead, he is warned to leave before he gets shot.
Theroux’s critique of Western charity organizations — that they’re aloof, security-conscious and more interested in image than substance — is obvious. For a few pages it’s as if the reader has wandered into a John le Carré novel. Hock and Manyenga, who has caught up with him, share a brief moment of solidarity. “‘I hate them,’ Hock says.
“ ‘And myself,’ replies Manyenga, ‘I hate them, too much.’ ”
But after this moment of truth Theroux has nowhere to go with his plot. Old, sick, confused and distracted by the villagers’ pretense that he is their “chief,” Hock is no le Carré hero. He returns to the village and struggles to escape, but like a fly caught in a web, he becomes more and more feeble. He lets the villagers take the rest of his money, thinking that when it is gone, they will release him.
Instead, they prepare to literally sell him “down the river,” to the children from the charity zone. Hock can barely recognize that there are relationships that might save him — personal connections he’s developed with two marginalized villagers, based in the offhand kindness he’s shown each of them.
It’s a nightmarish story and compelling for that reason. Hock’s helplessness has its source in the culture and class to which he belongs, which create the assumption that people can be controlled by money, that money will result in everyone’s prosperity. But the feedback loop can go the other way. Desperate people will often take whatever they can, whenever they can, because they can never expect to get more.
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