June 28, 2012 / 9:23 AM / 7 years ago

Book Talk: Former Peace Corp volunteer finds Africa changed

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Peace Corps volunteer who views his time in Malawi in the 1960s as the highlight of his life goes back when his marriage falters, only to find the southern African country he remembers has unraveled through poverty and AIDS, or perhaps never existed.

Largely set in a small isolated village in modern Malawi, “The Lower River” is the 29th work of fiction by Paul Theroux, 71.

The protagonist, Ellis Hock, now 62, has led a secure middle-class life owning a menswear shop in Medford, Massachusetts, and is at first welcomed warmly by the villagers on his return to Malawi. Yet amidst the visible ruins of what he began there as a school teacher in his 20s, his romantic vision of the past is shattered when he is trapped by the people he thought to help again.

Award-winning author Theroux talks about his latest book, his experiences from his own time in the Peace Corps in the 1960s and his views on modern day Africa.

Q: In 26 words, what is the book’s premise?

A: “It’s a story about captivity. A story about a sentimental journey back in time to recapture a former happiness, that turns from idyllic to a place he can’t get out of. He’s money on two legs.”

Q: Why Malawi?

A: “It’s a country that I know well. I was in the Peace Corps. I wanted to write about a place I know. I’m writing about a place I lived in and know well, the seasons, the animals, the foliage and the people. The texture of the place is familiar to me. I was there from ‘63 to ‘65.”

Q: Since Madonna adopted a child from Malawi, do Americans understand more about the country?

A: “I don’t think Americans know a lot about Africa. If people go there on safari, they see the wildlife but have no idea about how people live there. The reality is of more interest but more depressing. You don’t get it unless you work there.”

Q: Who is to say that people in Africa are not happier without the endless pressures of Western society to succeed, make money and be constantly in contact via technology?

A: “Hearing the people, they want what everyone wants, a job, they want money, they want a place in the world and they want advancement.”

Q: How much of the book is autobiographical?

A: “The background of it. The story itself is not my story. A painter who paints the background, paints the trees, the animals, the seasons. The drama of the story is not my story. It’s my fantasy, in my case, one of captivity. To the character Ellis Hock, it was the happiest place. It has been his Eden. I didn’t feel that way. His life is over, he goes back to the only place he was happy. That was a good premise for the drama of it.”

Q: Do you have trepidations about how much AIDS has decimated rural Africa?

A: “When I lived in Malawi, it was a country of lots of old men, many of them born in the 19th Century with memories of the First World War. It was interesting to me. I regret the fact I did not talk to them as much as I should have.

“Malawi is not now a country of old men.

“I wonder what is going to happen and don’t think it will be good. The trepidation is that Africa is turning into a conglomeration of huge squalid cities that are unsustainable. They don’t have water, gardens for food supply, medication. People go to the cities out of boredom. They want to go as there is work, there is some kind of promise. But what will happen to the cities? Luanda, Harare, Blantyre are getting bigger, dirtier and poorer. They are not getting better.”

Q: How much research went into this novel?

A: “A certain amount but a lot of it was from memory. The main thing was to make the book persuasive, believable. A lot of it was visceral, from my guts. I wasn’t in this part of Malawi (in the Peace Corps) but I used to go to the lower river district. It was a forgotten district. No one went there. People lived and died — a little corner of the country surrounded by Mozambique. It was on a railway that was not working very well then. I wanted to write about a place not readily accessible. I asked other people who worked there, other Peace Corps volunteers.”

Q: How long did you take to research and write it?

A: “A book like this takes a couple of years thinking about it, starting it. I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’m a pretty steady worker once I’ve settled on an idea.”

Reporting By Nick Olivari; editing by Patricia Reaney and Kenneth Barry

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