Saturday, March 31, 2012

From Malden, MA to Malawi, East Africa - "The Lower River" by Paul Theroux

One of my favorite travel books by Paul Theroux is "Patagonia Express." The long journey that will take him to the tip of South America begins humbly enough on the T's Orange Line in Medford, Massachusetts. His latest work - a novel - also begins simply in the quiescent simplicity of downtown Medford and then takes the protagonist, Ellis Hock, back to Malawi, a failed state in East Africa. What Ellis finds there, many years after he had served there as a young volunteer in the Peace Corps, makes this book a fascinating journey through many levels of reflection. Ellis re-examines the nature of life in the village of Malabo and simultaneously searches deep within his own heart and spirit. Along the way, Theroux examines the nature of relationships, the meaning of life, civilization, belief systems,innocence and corruption, the nature of charity.

"The Lower River" is a beautifully terrifying work. The sense of hopeless and isolation that Ellis feels once he realizes that he is a virtual prisoner in Malabo is palpable. The cast of characters is indelibly drawn. Theroux's insights are profound. Hear Ellis' thoughts as he prepares to leave his life in Massachusetts as he nears retirement:

"Although he moved into a condo on Forest Street - the former high school - he and Deena [his ex-wife] still saw each other. Formally, sometimes shyly, they went on dates. They were not quite ready to see other people, and even the sessions with Doctor Bob had not affected their fundamental liking for each other. The dates ended with a chaste and usually fumbled kiss, and Ellis was always sad afterward, lonely in his car. He knew that he had caused Deena pain, destroyed her love for him, made her untrusting - perhaps untrusting of all other men. In the secrecy and confidences of his messages, he had betrayed her. He could be kind to her now, but there was no way to amend the past. On some of their dates she sat numb and silent, suffering like a wounded animal. He could not think of himself, because he knew the hurt he's inflicted on her would never heal.

Ellis dreaded the day when Deena would say to him, 'I'm seeing someone.' He told her how bad business was, and she tried to console him, urging him to sell the building, that the real estate was worth something, that it was an ideal location.

On one of those dates, she gave him the phone - the instrument of their undoing, which now seemed to him as something diabolical Or had it been a great purifying instrument? Anyway, it had uncovered his entire private life, shown him as sentimental, flirtatious, dreamy, romantic, unfulfilled, yearning. But for what? What did all those e-mails mean? What in all this emotion was the thing he wanted?

HE did not know. He might never know. He was too old perhaps for anything more. No momentous thing would ever happen to him. No passion, no great love, no new landscape,no more children, no risk, no drama. The rest of his life would be a withdrawal, a growing smaller, until finally he would be forgotten. The name on his store would be replaced by another. His marriage was over, his daughter gone. He could not remember much of the marriage, and yet he missed the eventlessness of it, his old routine, the monotony that had seemed like a friend. There was a certainty in routine, the torpor it induced in him was a comfort.

The day after Hock got the phone back he went to the store, keeping the thing in his pocket the whole day. After he locked up for the night (he observed himself doing this, as if in a ritual), he walked to the edge of the parking lot, where beyond a fence the Mystic River brimmed, and flung the phone and watched it plop and sink and drown in the water that was moody under the dark sky. (Pages 16-17)

I view this excerpt as a beautiful and insightful reflection on one mans' existential dilemma - and, by extension, every man's dilemma.

He begins his return journey to Africa in this dark place and finds even darker shades of existential challenge in his old village.

This novel is thought-provoking and soul-stirring.

Enjoy the journey!


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