Paul Theroux has been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. I didn’t realize until I started writing about fragrance that he is more aware of the olfactory sense than any other writer I know. I’ve featured his smell-centered prose before. This quote comes from his new novel, The Lower River.
The main character, Ellis Hock, is an American businessman who once served in the Peace Corps. As his life at home begins to unravel, he returns to his old African village, thinking he’ll be able to regain the sense of purpose he had there as a younger man. Theroux describes Hock's arrival in the nearest large town:
“The air was dense and hot, woven of many odors, and just a whiff brought it all back. He was walking down Hanover to Henderson, to the corner of Laws, to the bookshop, where he’d caught a glimpse of the sign Office Supplies. The countryside, so close, penetrated the town. You could not see the bush from the main street, but you could smell it: the wood smoke floated past the shops and seeped into the brick and stucco, the peculiar hum of scorched eucalyptus, the dustiness of dead leaves, the fields chopped apart by rusty mattocks to release the sharpness of bruised roots and red earth, all of it stinking ripeness and decay; and on every sidewalk the sweetish feet smell of the people, the sourness of their rags.”
Theroux, who was a Peace Corp volunteer in a similar time and place in his youth, writes with stinging authority. This modern sub-Saharan Africa is ravaged by AIDS and well-meaning relief organizations whose celebrity benefactors finance food drops from helicopters, humiliating the native people, who must scramble after it like animals. Much has gone wrong, and Hock’s idealism fades to a helpless passivity in the midst of it.
I found this book hard to read and equally hard to stop reading. It’s new, and has already caused some controversy. Some have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For my purposes here, this — and all Theroux’s writing — is unusual in that it emphasizes the sense of smell, thereby giving the prose real immediacy and power.
The Lower River is available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-00547074650-0.
The illustration is taken from the books’s cover art, designed by Melissa Lotfy.