NEW YORKER Stories
Knowing that Paul Theroux was thrown out of the Peace Corps for engaging in Malawi's politics during his teaching stint, we might best suppose that "The Lower River" is not absolutely autobiographical, but borrows from the experience of a fellow volunteer; nevertheless, the story's protagonist, Altman, hails, like Mr Theroux, from Medford, Massachusetts. Mr Theroux has something of a weakness for playing to our desire to read "through" fiction — to treat fiction as more-or-less lightly disguised memoir. We don't ask, was Paul Theroux a stand-out Peace Corps volunteer forty-odd years ago. We ask, has Paul Theroux really considered "going back," as Altman does?
It had been his Eden, for those four years he had spent in a village called Malabo as a young man.
Malabo had remained in his mind in the way that the notion of home might persist in someone else's. When all hope is lost and everything is up the wall, he often thought, reassuring himself, I can always go back.
Whether dealing in fact or in fiction, Mr Theroux writes powerfully about the environments in which he finds himself and, perhaps more pungently than powerfully, about his responses to the people he finds in those environments. The tension between affectionate curiosity about the real world and an egotism that threatens to block out the real world altogether is salient in "The Lower River."
Even before his plane touched down, Altman knew that he had made the right decision. He relaxed, smiling as he looked out the window at the low empty hill,s the creases of green in the landscape which marked the foliage along rivers and creeks, the villages made visible by the smoke rising from cooking fires. From the air, the place looked just as he had left it, as a man of twenty-three. Where else could you go on earth and say that?
The smile, the relaxation, the complacent (and premature) conclusion that everything is "just as he had left it" — these are the hallmarks of Altman's arrogance. The story is peppered with demonstrations of Altman's belief that to know about a land is to conquer it more permanently than any Cortez. He never misses an opportunity to flash his knowledge of the language, or of its proverbs. As a young man, this arrogance took a telling form.
The villagers feared snakes, he know; encountering a snake at the start of a journey, a Sena traveller returned home. Because of these fears, in his years here Altman had developed an interest, to set himself apart, so that he would be something more than a mzungu [white man]. He had kept some snakes in baskets, and fed them with lizards and grasshoppers an mice, and he had released them in places where they'd be safe and breed.
Altman is the sort of man who might actually believe that this "interest" — in fact a rather transparent self-elevation into exactly the sort of mzungu divinity that Altman would undoubtedly deplore in another — might strike the Sena villagers as anything but obnoxious and offensive. They might respect Altman's lack of fear, but they could hardly be expected to like it. In any case, Altman's conquest of Malabo turns out to be as transitory as any conquest. For one thing, he is now in his sixties, far more vulnerable to the challenges of the hardscrabble environment. For another, the Malabo that he knew so well no longer exists. It social landscape has been degraded.
He had come expecting to be welcomed; he had wanted to contribute something to the village again. But no one was interested. The people of Malabo were much worse off now than when he had come before, and more cynical, shrewder, as a result.
The heart of the story is Altman's interaction with the village chief, Manyenga, a young man who is nothing if not cynical and shrewd. No primitive, Manyenga wears a baseball hat, drives a motorcycle, and has worked as a driver for Western charitable organizations in Blantyre. He uses words such as "agenda" and "pipeline." From a cultural standpoint, he is thoroughly corrupt. While Altman is distracted by his initial welcome at the village — "Where else in the world could you arrive unannounced and be welcomed on sight?" — Manyenga has already begun the power match that he will play with the older man until he has extracted everything — in cash, anyway — that Altman has to give, oppressing him with gestures of honor, making him a royally-treated prisoner in the village. We share Altman's anxiety about his safety more readily than any other experience. But Manyenga's desultory wickedness does not confer special powers. When Altman's money is gone, Manyenga's ironic smirk goes with it. "Now the man was uncertain, clumsy in his politeness, eager to please."
The reassurance no longer reassures: because "back" has ceased to exist, Altman can never go there.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press