Living on the Edge
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Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (page 3)
Outsiders in Africa
In mid-winter, 1968, I wandered into Discount Books & Records off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and spotted a thin novel entitled Fong and the Indians. The author was Paul Theroux. The setting was Africa.
     Theroux would write later of this novel, “I began writing about the Chinese man who ran the grocery store around the corner from where I lived in Wandegeya [in Kampala, Uganda] . . . The Chinese man, his grocery store, his Indian competitors, his African customers — these were my characters . . . I had written two novels before this, but Fong was the first piece of fiction that satisfied me.” Theroux would come back to this Chinese immigrant. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece about Hong Kong (June 10, 1997), he mentioned again this lone Chinese family in Africa.
     What Theroux was writing about was not Africa and Africans, but about the outsiders in Africa. The Chinese man in Uganda. The British ex-pat in Malawi. The colonialist in Mozambique. And yes, Peace Corps Volunteers.
It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck.
“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber,” he writes in the preface to On The Edge of the Great Rift. “He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”
     These “displaced people” in Africa fired both his curiosity and his prose. They were the source of his famous scorn, off the written page as well as on it.

The Radical PCV
Paul Theroux lived, not only on the edge of the Rift, but also on the edge of the Peace Corps. He was the Volunteer who lived in the African village without servants. He drank in the shanty bars instead of with the Brits at their gymkhanas. He went home with African women and did not date the pale daughters of British settlers when they came home on holidays from their all-white Rhodesian boarding schools. He hated the PCVs who ran with the ex-pats, the “wog bashers,” as they called themselves. But though he held himself apart from his fellow PCVs, Theroux was, according to his country director, Michael McCone, “an outstanding teacher who lived up to the Peace Corps standard of involvement in his school.” And it was this very involvement with his fellow teachers and African friends that finally got him into big trouble.

Persona non grata
“Two months before I was supposed to leave,” Theroux recalled in a 1971 essay published in Esquire and reprinted in Sunrise with Seamonsters, “I was charged with conspiring against the government. All I did was help several Africans: help one’s mother, help another with his car, maybe write a few mild anti-[U.S.] government articles. But I was linked to a plot to assassinate Hastings Banda. Well, people I knew were actually trying to shoot Banda. So it was more guilt by association.”
     Theroux came home to be interrogated by the State Department and the Peace Corps.
     Writing about this in Esquire, under the title “The Killing of Hastings Banda,” Theroux explained how he had innocently gotten mixed up with the German equivalent of the CIA. He was writing “background” pieces for what he understood was a German magazine, but what was actually their intelligence service. This, of course, was — and still is — against Peace Corps regulations.
     The “background pieces” eventually went to The Christian Science Monitor and were his first published writings on Africa. These essays saved him, as he writes in the introduction to Sunrise with Seamonsters, “from dropping back into the schoolroom, or into the even more dire profession of writing applications for grants and fellowships.”
     Theroux wasn’t kicked out of the Peace Corps for writing articles about Malawi, but toward the end of his second year as a Volunteer he made the mistake of helping a Malawian friend, David Rubadiri, a former headmaster of Theroux’s school and later a delegate to the United Nations. Rubadiri had recently been denounced by Hastings Banda, had left the U.N. in New York, and was living in political exile in Uganda.
     Rubadiri wrote to Paul from Uganda, “asking me if I could find it in my heart to help his mother flee the country, and also would I mind driving his car to Uganda with his set of best china, a dinner service for twelve.”
     Theroux, as a favor to his friend, did transport the car, the mother and the china to Kampala. On his way back to Malawi by plane, and at Rubadiri’s request, he flew via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to deliver an envelope to Yatuuta Chisiza, a revolutionary who had organized an army that was attacking Malawi border posts in hopes of eventually overthrowing Banda.
     As Theroux wrote in Esquire, “My readiness to say yes to favors may suggest a simplicity of mind, a fatal gullibility; but I was bored.” Next he carried a coded message from Yatuuta Chisiza to a “Greek fellow” in Malawi's capital, Blantyre, When Theroux delivered him the message — that on October 16 the Greek baker was to deliver his bread to Ncheu, a town thirty miles from Blantyre — the baker “trembled and went pale.”
     Later, in a Chinese restaurant in Salisbury, Rhodesia, Theroux was told by Wes Leach, the Peace Corps Associate Director (Staff: Malawi 1964–66), that Banda told the American ambassador that Banda had proof Theroux was plotting to kill him. Banda demanded the Volunteer be sent home.
     Theroux guessed the Greek baker had been caught, interrogated by the Malawi Criminal Investigation Department about the “bread van” and, frightened for his own life, set up the American messenger. Using Theroux’s name, government agents established correspondence with Chisiza in Dar es Salaam. Later, instead of finding “bread” waiting in a van, Chisiza found Malawi soldiers, who ambushed and killed the revolutionary gunmen from Tanzania.
     For a while, Theroux thought he might also have been expelled from Malawi because of an English textbook he was writing. With no resources but some inappropriate grammar books from Kansas and a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels donated by the English Speaking Union in London, Theroux and a Malawian linguist had begun writing a textbook that concentrated on verb patterns and sentence structure, rather than the usual grammar punctuation of subordinating conjunctions, adjectival phrases, and dependent clauses. At some point, the textbook was shown to Hastings Banda, and in a speech before Parliament he attacked certain teachers of English, and Paul’s textbook in particular, because it contained no grammar lessons. Banda was furious, calling the book a “nonsensical linguistic approach.”
     Although Banda used the textbook to attack him, it was not Theroux’s sentence structure but his association with various Malawians trying to overthrow the government that finally got him kicked out of the country and the Peace Corps.
     (In 1971 Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda declared himself Malawi’s President for Life after an attempted revolt within his cabinet. He ruled Malawi until 1994 when he was finally lost power. On November 25, 1997, he died of respiratory failure in Johannesburg, South Africa, having been transferred there from a Malawian hospital suffering from pneumonia and fever. The Garden City Clinic, where he died, said he was 99, but government documents during his rule would have made him about 90. He was given a state funeral on December 3, 1997, with a 19-gun salute and military honors.)
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