Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, explores the difficult relationship between international aid, altruism, and the developing world. The main character, Ellis Hock, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in his younger years. After his marriage falls apart, he decides to return to the small Malawian village that made him so happy. Nothing could have possibly changed there since the 1960s, right? The Malawians will be thrilled to see him and he can restart the small school he had created in his youth. Of course, as you can imagine, the village has changed drastically. Most of the novel chronicles his journey to the village and his desperate attempt to leave after he has been drained of money, resources, spirit, and, oh yeah, potentially sold into slavery.
I was very excited about this novel when I read a review and I love Theroux’s understanding of the challenges of international aid and altruism, which are embodied in these sentences:
“That seemed to be a feature of life in the country: to welcome strangers, let them live out their fantasy of philanthropy — a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a welfare center, a malaria eradication program, or a church; and then determine if in any of this effort and expense there was a side benefit — a kickback, a bribe, an easy job, a free vehicle. If the scheme didn’t work — and few of them did work — whose fault was that? Whose idea was it in the first place?”
It isn’t the easiest book to like though. Hock is a difficult character. He is emotionally distant in his relationships, obsessed with an idyllic Africa that never really existed, and unable to comprehend why the villagers might treat him with disrespect. The other characters aren’t well-fleshed out (it is Hock’s story). Zizi is most developed, but she serves mostly as an object to aid Hock’s return to civilization. I believe Theroux was intentional in creating these characters (i.e., we aren’t supposed to like Hock), but as a reader it can be at best daunting to stick with a character you don’t like, or even abhor. At worst Hock becomes a stand-in for a sermon on the ills of international altruism. Another issue is the repetitiveness of the story, especially near the end. I feel like it would have been a great novella, but is too long as a novel. A few times I was rooting for Hock to die already.
Overall The Lower River is a good book, but it requires a committed reader. It is well-written and has thoughtful observations on the meaning of altruism in the developing world.