Carried Away by the Lower River
Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” (published by The New Yorker last month) is a great story. Its full text is available here. Okay, so it’s a bit uneven. It seemed to miss a step when it started, but then it catches on and it keeps you hooked until the very end—when it offers no easy solutions, psychological or otherwise. More on this in a minute.
“The Lower River” is a story about an elderly American man, called Altman, who travels back to the tiny town of Malabo, in the south of Malawi. Altman had been a teacher there for four years when he was younger, and he remembers it fondly (“his Eden,” he calls it). People quickly remember him when he returns, they almost idolize him, and he glows with the warm reception: if only people back home could see him now, he thinks. He feels nothing has changed (“It was as it had been—[…] a world that was ancient in its simplicities”).
But things have changed. The village leader is a young and wily man called Manyenga, who greets Altman with uncertainty and respect at first, quickly asks for money, and then constantly cheats Altman and leads the town in a collective effort of keeping Altman in demeaning captivity—an effort masquerading as praise and obeisance. They call him “Father” and “chief,” even while they struggle to keep him from straying away. Manyenga tries to match Altman with his niece. Altman becomes intermittently sick, intermittently angry, utterly impotent. He tries to leave or get help, but fails every time. The villagers show him respect again when he runs out of money—and will thus need to make a run to town to get another cash withdrawal with his credit card. But we realize this respect is all for show. In the end, Altman plays out the rituals of salutation and propriety with the newly diffident Manyenga—“but this time without hope.”
All this sense of being trapped reminded me of powerful moments in Coetzee’s Disgrace. As I read, I kept begging Altman to shake himself free and run away. But this was asking too much from this sickly and entrapped man. There is a grippingly realistic existentialism at work (nonexistential existentialism, if you will). In the end, we’re not caught in a deranged person’s mind, or shunted into a different realm of existence. Such an existentialist nightmare is staged and run by this-worldly people. And, as a story, it works rather well.
I said “The Lower River” missed a step when it started. What I meant is that it takes a few paragraphs to really latch on to Altman’s consciousness. The story is narrated in the third person, but it follows Altman’s thoughts closely, using him as the narrative’s prism. For instance, when Manyenga makes a grunting sound early on, we are not told what the grunt “really” means; we get this: “Altman knew that the grunt meant money.” We are not told abstractly about the villager’s fear of snakes: “The villagers feared snakes, he knew.” This is a familiar form of focalizing narratives. But it’s done unevenly. At first, the narration explains things Altman wouldn’t need to recall. In the first paragraph, for example, Malabo is not just Malabo, but “a village called Malabo.” Why say this? Altman knows it’s a village, and as readers, we could figure it out painlessly. The second paragraph is a long description that seems plucked from a travel guide. Furthermore, the second section has this sentence, which seems to have wandered in there from some other text: “Like many other resort areas in Africa, [Malawi] was a country where local people starved and the few tourists ate well and were fussed over.” This is no longer intrusive when the story continues, as it focuses on Altman.
Some descriptions are luscious, made with just the right words. I liked how, after having lived a year in Malabo, Altman “had understood the inflections of the weather.” I liked the provocative way in which Altman, seeing the thin and probably famished girl Manyenga keeps thrusting on him, thinks “she had the starved angularity of high fashion.”
I enjoyed seeing a story like this in The New Yorker. Stories of the everyday have become quite common (one might even say the norm in many short story venues); I do enjoy tales that educe powerful descriptions from the quotidian, stories in which nothing out of the ordinary happens and yet we feel moved by the language and the insights and the characters. However, it’s great to be reminded of how the imagination can lead us to situations that drive people to extraordinary challenges, where, yes, even life itself hangs in the balance.