The Lower River: Heart of Darkness revisited

The Lower RiverPaul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, takes us on a journey to the very south of Malawi. Ellis Hock is our guide – our eyes and our ears – on his return to the village where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, 40 years earlier, a time and a place where he had been happy. But the place has changed and his return visit quickly spirals out of control.

It’s a riveting read, fast paced and tense. As a thriller, it thrills. Reviews have generally been very positive.

But I wasn’t able to just accept it as a gripping tale of a journey that went horribly wrong. Too much of the context was misleading or simply wrong. It did not ring true.

I may not be a literary critic, but I can safely claim familiarity with many of the issues Theroux covers – misguided philanthropy, remote rural Africa, the devastating effect of HIV/AIDS, witchcraft and traditional beliefs. And he doesn’t get them right.

The portrayal of the development industry is frustrating. There is much that is wrong with the way “development” is done. But rather than taking honest aim at what should be for him an easy target, Theroux creates a caricature and shoots that down instead. A pair of superstars – one in a cowbow hat, the other in black skin-tight suit (Bono and Angelina Jolie, anyone?) – appear in a helicopter to deliver food aid. An NGO, “Agence Anonyme”, is heartless, disconnected from reality, hopelessly ineffective, operating a “charity zone” between Malawi and Mozambique.

I’m very sympathetic to Theroux’s criticisms of international development work and more than willing to criticise development NGOs and celebrity philanthropy. But I don’t see the need to exaggerate so extravagantly when the reality is so easy to satirise. The result is that even the worst development workers can say in honesty that they’re not as bad as those in the book. By exaggerating, the real culprits are let off the hook.

And let’s take the book’s remote rural setting. I can’t claim any familiarity with the specific district of Malawi that Theroux writes about, but I know remote rural Tanzania very well and have spent enough time in Malawi to know that the two countries have a lot in common.

In other words, I should recognise the village he writes about. But I don’t. A school that once thrived has been completely abandoned, which is just about possible but unlikely. Even more unconvincing is that there is no church presence at all. Perhaps Theroux judged that a church would have blurred the picture being painted of deeply held tribal spiritual beliefs, and confused his readers. But a village without a church, without that church being at the centre of community life in the village, is totally implausible.

The village of orphans may work as an allusion to Lord of the Flies, but is far from being an honest portrayal of AIDS-afflicted rural Africa. If such villages exist, I’ve never heard of them, and I’m pretty sure that I would have done.

I could go on.

I don’t suppose many readers will share these complaints. Not many will know the context well enough to say whether it rings true or not.

But that’s part of the problem. There’s a danger that readers will take the book at face value, believe that the depictions of people and places are accurate, and believe that they understand rural Africa as a result.

Chinua Achebe famously criticised “Heart of Darkness” for dehumanising Africans and perpetuating damaging stereotypes of Africa. The very phrase, “heart of darkness” is seen as emblematic of the problem.

And now here we have a book that paints a misleading picture of another remote corner of Africa, a river again at the heart of the story. Many of the same criticisms apply. Theroux’s Malawian characters have more subtlety than Conrad’s Congolese, but are still pretty one dimensional. They’re not even allowed to be dishonest without this being a product of misguided western intervention. Africa is chaotic. Africa is beyond understanding, beyond help. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive, deluding themselves, self-aggrandising, perpetuating the destruction.

Yes, there’s plenty of chaos in Africa. Yes, there are plenty of misdirected, counter-productive efforts by self-serving and/or naive outsiders. But Theroux exaggerates beyond plausibility, and by doing so, does both Africa and his readers a disservice. An illusion of understanding is a dangerous thing.

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