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An Author's Journey Back To 'The Lower River'


Writer Paul Theroux can't shake Africa. Almost 50 years ago, he lived in the small central African nation of Malawi. Theroux was there for four years teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, and some of the most visceral details have stayed with him.

PAUL THEROUX: The smell of Malawi is the smell of cooking fires and of a particular kind of wood. It's the eucalyptus wood. It's always the smell of cooking though - the wood smoke from the cooking fire and then the sizzle of oil in a pan. And whenever I go back to Africa, I have that smell in my nostrils and I think I could not be anywhere else.

MARTIN: Paul Theroux's new novel, "The Lower River," takes him to Malawi again. It's the story of Ellis Hock, also a former Peace Corps volunteer. He longs to return to the Malawian village where he volunteered decades earlier, hoping to revisit a different, better chapter of his life.

THEROUX: Over the years, he's developed this fantasy life separate from his family, from his wife, and he realizes that this fantasy life includes this wish to get away, to be somewhere else. And he thinks I was only happy one place in my life and that was in Africa. His marriage ends, his business folds and so he says I'm going to go back to the only place that I was ever happy.

MARTIN: So, he expects to kind of restart, to pick up where he left off so many decades ago. But he finds a very different place than the one he left.

THEROUX: Yes. He finds a haunted place. He finds a place that's been completely neglected, that's sort of turned in upon itself. The place actually exists and the people exist. It used to be called Port Herald in the southern part of Malawi. The lower river is an actual place - the Shire River - which flows into the Zambezi. It's not exactly the place that I'm writing about in my book. I mean, I'm writing about a village that doesn't exist. But Ellis Hock goes there and he's looking for his happiness. You know, it's going back to his roots, going back to his old village and seeing what it's like. It's a story that's been in my mind a lot because it's the picnic that goes wrong, the vacation that turns into a horror. You know, you go to a place - it happened to me in Africa long ago. I went. These people said come to our village and, you know, we'll have a drink. It was late at night. We went. Next morning, I said I think I'll leave. They said no, no, no, stick around another day. I did. On the third day, I said I'm definitely leaving. They said no, no, you can't leave. Give us money and you're staying. And it went on for three or four days. It was very, very scary. They wouldn't let me leave. And I've often thought about that experience. I suppose I transformed that into this story of the man who goes sentimentally back to his village, the happy village of his Peace Corps years. And it's not only different but they won't let him go.

MARTIN: But I have to say that when I was reading this, he clearly descends upon this village. It does not meet his expectations. The school he once taught at is this dilapidated shell of a building. What did he expect to happen?

THEROUX: He's expected them to be the people that he knew 50 years before, before they were habituated to being given money and food and aid - not humanitarian aid because they're desperately poor but just drip feed money and drip feed food. So, Ellis Hock is in this place where people have been corrupted and where they really want to get away, and they've learned that someone like Ellis Hock is money on two legs.

MARTIN: So, it seems that Ellis Hock has really two Malawis in his consciousness. There's the Malawi of really his selective memory, this place where he came of age in the 1960s, and then there's the place that nearly destroys him in the present as a 60-some-year-old man. I wonder which of these versions of Malawi has stayed with you over the years.

THEROUX: I returned to my Peace Corps school and I got very sad because it wasn't school that I remembered and it hadn't aged well. It's silly to think that because you have a dream for a person or a place or you have hopes that those hopes are going to be fulfilled. Probably they won't be fulfilled. And the reason is because they're your hopes. They're not the hopes of those people. So, you're deluding yourself into thinking that, and I suppose that's the idea behind the book. The Malawi that stays in my mind, well, there are two. There's the old place that I knew that had a population of maybe a million or a million and a half, and then there's the present-day with a million orphans and huge unsustainable population, of deforestation and tyranny. And they don't qualify for a lot of aid because their governance is so bad.

MARTIN: Why write this now in your life? It has been so many years since you had the experiences that kind of triggered this story.

THEROUX: The first place that you go in your life where you learn a language and you know people stays in your mind. I'm still friendly with a dozen Peace Corps volunteers that were fellow teachers of mine in Malawi. It was a formative experience for me. It's something that never left. I am now at a point in my life where I understand my experience a lot better and I see a possibility - a dramatic and fictional possibility - that I haven't seen before.

MARTIN: You have done so much travel writing, and even though this isn't a traditional piece of travel writing, place really is a central character in this story. And I wonder what message you want your readers to come away with. What kind of image do you want them to be left with when it comes to this character, this Malawi?

THEROUX: What I would like the reader to do is to keep turning the pages and think, as you do with a book that you love, that you become part of it. You know the people, you know the place. You can smell it, see it. And then maybe later, a month or two later, trying to figure out is this about aid, is it about Africa, is about captivity? You know, all those questions arise later. But I don't have further, you know, existential hope other than the joy of reading.

MARTIN: That's Paul Theroux. His new novel is called "The Lower River." He joined us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu. Paul, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking with us.

THEROUX: Thanks, Rachel. It's a pleasure talking to you too.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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