I’ve always felt a strong connection to Paul Theroux, due largely to our shared legacy as Peace Corps Volunteers in Malawi. When I expressed reluctance about taking an assignment teaching English there in the ’90s, the recruiter suggested I read My Secret History, part of which was inspired by Theroux’s experience teaching English in Malawi in the ’60s. I found the book funny, intelligent, irreverent, and most importantly: exotic. So off I went to Malawi.
Two decades later, Theroux’s a fixture in my household. He’s part of the long-running repartee between my wife and me. I enjoy reading Paul Theroux, and his work figures prominently as an influence to my writing. My wife, on the other hand, thinks him a toad.
This is relevant. Deepa also served as a Volunteer in Malawi, swearing in with me and 37 others on December 6th, 1996 (an easy date to remember: the day before Pearl Harbor Day). As is usual for this kind of ceremony, the U.S. Ambassador led us in the oath of service. He arrived early for some unrelated ribbon-cutting, and joked during his remarks that his wife would be furious with him because he’d forgotten to send the driver back for her. When she finally arrived, she was in the company of a rough-looking White man in a polo shirt and hiking boots, a haggard visitor looking more like a worker than the companion of the top U.S. diplomat. Naturally, we assumed he was the driver. Turns out he was Paul Theroux.
We soon forgot the strange azungu and turned our attention to the remarks being made in the local language by the strongest Chichewa speaker in our training group, an honored role and a great Peace Corps tradition demonstrating respect for the country of service. When the ceremony ended, we sought out punch to celebrate our status as Volunteers. The White stranger, for his part, had this off-hand comment as he brushed past the young woman who’d worked so hard on her remarks: “Nice speech. But you should have used some proverbs. Like…” blah, blah, blah.
Typical Theroux. Sharp observation, poisonous delivery. He’d returned to Africa to write about a boat trip along the Zambezi for National Geographic, and took the opportunity to visit the country that expelled him in 1965 (declared Persona non-Grata for allegedly supporting a coup against then-President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda). For this Volunteer — how lucky I am now to be her spouse! — his manner of observation turned out to be just as arrogant and intolerable—The show-off! The pompous know-it-all!—in person as she found him to be in print.
That is Theroux’s reception, in my home and elsewhere: revered, reviled. It’s a pleasure to ring in the new year reading Mr. Bones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2014), enjoying all the things that make his work wonderful. And horrible.