Theroux the keyhole
Paul Theroux tells Matt Fleming his new novel is the result of a ‘great deal of travel’
Few authors are as prolific as Paul Theroux. He has written scores of books – fiction and non-fiction – over the years. And he’s not showing any signs of stopping just yet. The 70-year-old American’s 32nd novel, The Lower River, is soon to hit the shelves – and it will focus on the African country of Malawi, where Theroux was a teacher from 1963 (and was later expelled and thrown out of the Peace Corps for helping a political opponent of Prime Minister Hastings Banda escape to Uganda).
In The Lower River, says Theroux, a man’s marriage crumbles, his business goes bust, his daughter is disenchanted with him and he is 62, so ‘what does he do?’ He decides to go to the ‘only place he was ever really happy’ – a remote place in Malawi, to a village on a distant river, where he had been a school teacher long ago. There’re clearly parallels to Theroux’s past in this latest offering – but the author plays it down. “My reality check in Malawi has been a process over the past 25 years, and I described this in my travel book Dark Star Safari. As a young man I truly believed that Africa would develop slowly but would result in the enrichment of the many. I had not bargained on tyranny, greed, rivalry, the indifference of the world, and the energy and banking crises. I was never disillusioned, but I began to see how the world works, and how the political process is no solution. Malawi is now on its third tyrant, though the people of Malawi tend to be hardworking. If I say my book is about disenchantment that sounds boring. It is, in many respects, an adventure story.”
Theroux says the idea for the novel has been with him for no less than 40 years. “It is really a simple notion,” he says. “A man goes to Africa with the most idealistic and unselfish motives – to help. He wants to improve a village. He has money. He is enamoured of the village. But, by degrees, he comes to understand that nothing is going right and, at the same time, the village begins to regard him as theirs – they won’t let him go. He becomes captive – but they need to keep him happy, because they need his money. How does he react? What does he do? Does he try to understand – or does he escape? And what happens when all his money is gone?”
The central character in Theroux’s novels is often, as he puts it, ‘a minority, the outsider, the alien’. And it’s no different here. “I suppose I have trodden this ground before,” he says. “But I should also say that The Lower River is the result of a great deal of travel, of thought, of the experience of Africa, in a place I know well, where I speak the language.”
Theroux has, over the years, been a critical success from a highly successful family. He says he is proud of his ‘literary siblings’ and his ‘creative children’ – author Marcel and Louis, ‘one of the most brilliant documentary film makers of his generation’.
Theroux also says he has no plans in the pipeline for another book centring on Hong Kong, like 1997 novel Kowloon Tong did – but he adds: “I love going to Hong Kong – for its vitality, its sense of perfectionism, its great morale, the beauty of its people and some of the best hotels and food in the world.” He also has a passion for China, which he says ‘has changed in more profound and visible ways than any other country I have seen in my life’.
And Theroux’s not planning on putting down his pen any time yet. “The writing of fiction is, of course, maddening and difficult,” he says, “but it also brings me joy, so I hope that I am inspired in the years to come.” We’re sure he’s got plenty left in the tank.
The Lower River is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, priced $193.