Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Lower River by Paul Theroux - New Yorker Magazine Fiction

The Lower River becomes a game of cat and mouse where Altman becomes caught up in his own pride and need for domination which is happily nutured by the village that caters to his weakness in order to better manipulate him and extort his money. His self indulged, self importance, becomes a mockery towards the end of the story in which he himself realizes that he must appear to Manyenga like a poor monarch in dirty clothes with a skinny girl and a disfigured dwarf.

You can never step into the same river twice

When all hope is lost and everything is up the wall, he often thought, reassuring himself, I can always go back.

There is a strong theme of idealizing going back, juxtaposed with the impossibility of going back because everything changes and evolves. The river is never the same. The Village has grown from the innocent and naïve people that Altman once knew to a cunning, greedy, bitter and manipulative group. They have adopted behaviors from the new colonist who reside in Africa to promote tourism. Manyenga, who befriends Altman is corrupted and spurt out terms such as pipleine, agenda, program, intervention which bespeaks of a managing people and ideas.
Mr Altman has also changed because of his return in the village. Alman was a volunteer who goes where no missionary, not even the Africans will go and stays not the 2 year term but a record 4. He was sought out to write and read letters, Where he was once vain with self importance he leaves the village without hope and somewhat broken. In the beginning of the story sitting with the elders of the village he wishes someone in the states could witness him but in the end, all hope for improvement of the village is gone and crippled with residual illness and morally diminished he flees to save his life.

When the ruled become the ruler

He wants to be the great benefactor and explains he would of handed out money, except that would create a mob scene, instead, he smiles and in a “chiefly gesture” he salutes them.
He arrogantly orders them and refuses to heed their caution, but instead dominates situations such as when the bank teller cautions him to “be careful, sir”. He replies “almost “as a rebuke,“I used to live here. I was here at Independence. The Lower River.”.
Then later he berates and the taxi driver who tries to change the departure time and again later when he refuses to pay the extra fee to bring him further then the destination but orders him to stop the car.

The villagers on the other hand and especially Manyenga play to his need to dominate and to be served and to be considered admired. They call him father and chief and give him a young girl who is beautiful to serve him hand and foot. They make him comfortable and pretend they don’t understand when he says he is just visiting the village for a few days but instead speak of his program to extend his stay. They then slowly and subtly rob him so that not noticing he is being robbed he will return to the village with more money.

The Snake
The changes in the shift in power from Altman to the villagers and then back to Altman can be traced to the snake and to Altman’s use of it. When he first arrives to Malabo as a vulteer he uses to snake to set himself apart from the villagers who fear snakes, he uses the snakes to guard his money, and later he publicly kills the snake gaurding his basket with his money, permitting the villagers to take all of his money so that they will allow him to leave the village to get more. Manyena refuses to bring Altman out of the village because he pretends to have seen a snake on his path, but he really doesn’t want Altman to leave with the money. Having no way to leave the village, Alman becomes his prisoner. Later, when all the money is gone, and Manyena needs him to leave in order to get more, he Atlman is staring at a snake on the ground, and Manyena is afraid to approach him. The snake holds the village's fear, which is Altman’s power.

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