Living on the Edge
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Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (page 6)

Peace Corps Connection
In 1994 RPCV Ron Arias (Peru 1963–64) went to Hawaii to interview Theroux for People magazine. Theroux had just published a novel, Millroy the Magician, and that was how Ron was able to convince People that Theroux was a suitable subject for the magazine. Ron, who had recently spent time in Australia and had taken up sea kayaking, really wanted to talk to Theroux about his travel book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux’s account of traveling through the South Pacific in a sea kayak. These kayaks are sleek folding boats that can be put into the water anywhere, in the waters of Hawaii, where Theroux lives half the year, or back near his second home in Barnstable, Massachusetts.
     “When I began to travel with my kayak, my life changed,” Theroux told Arias. “I learned what all kayakers find out — you head for the offshore island, and often when you get there you see another, more distant island, invisible from the mainland shore. And so you are led onward, self-contained and self-reliant and utterly uplifted.”
     The two men went searching for a humpback whale, a half-mile off shore, in the ink-blue Kauai’s coastal waters. What impressed Ron was Theroux’s complete lack of fear, how he would approach a blowhole when other kayakers backed off.
     “I want to know things,” he explained, “especially if people say they’re dangerous or off-limits. How else do you discover what’s new and interesting?”
     Afterwards, Theroux invited Ron back to his house, saying that this was something that he couldn’t do with other reporters, but Ron, after all, was an RPCV.

The End of Leprosy
In many ways, Paul keeps going back to his Peace Corps connection. In September, 1989, he wrote a piece for National Geographic about Malawi entitled, “Faces of a Quiet Land.” He traveled twice to the country to do his research.
     The experience was moving for him, as it usually is for RPCVs who revisit their sites and see what happened to their students. In the National Geographic piece, he recalls his Peace Corps tour. “My classes were made up of skinny barefoot children who wanted to be doctors or lawyers,” he wrote. “They had impressive audacity and ambition — they seemed to come from nowhere, like waifs through the mist on cold Malawi mornings, and they were claiming their place in the world.”
     He went to Soche Hill Secondary School outside Limbe, where he had spent his Peace Corps years.
     “I had first met them in the rainy season of 1964, when they were barefoot children in their mid-teens,” he wrote of his former students. “What a pleasure it was for me 23 years later to see that they were still alive, still well and happy, and that they had families and jobs.”
     It was on this journey back to Africa that he revisited the leper mission at Ntakataka, but it was closed. His remembrance of this Peace Corps experience at the Catholic mission appeared in Granta 48 (a quarterly magazine published in England) in the summer of 1994. This essay, “The Lepers of Moyo,” later became Chapter Two of, My Other Life (an earlier piece on Ntakataka appeared as “Leper Colony: A Diary Entry” in the Evergreen Review in 1966.)
     About Moyo, Theroux writes, “During the African school holiday, we Peace Corps teachers were told to get jobs or do something useful . . . one of my students mentioned that he was from the Central Province, near the lake. He told me the name of his village and said it was on the way to the mission hospital, Moyo.”
     Theroux went there to teach English and live with the white-cassock missionary priests. He would fail at teaching English to the lepers, fail at playing cards with the priests, but he would succeed in meeting two very interesting women, an American nurse from Indiana who dressed like a Sister of the Sacred Heart, and the beautiful but leprous young Anina who brought her blind granny to Theroux’s English classes in the bandaging room.
     But how much of it is true? Did he really sleep with Birdie, the American nurse who dressed in a nun’s white, and went naked beneath it?
     And did he sleep with Amina, the girl who, lying with him on her straw mat, only inches away from her blind granny, whispered, Ndiri ndi mphere kwabasi. “I have a serious itch.” That line, Theroux said in Granta, was one of the sexiest things he had ever heard. But did she say it?

I Am Paul Theroux
Those who write, Theroux has declared, “are disturbed, dysfunctional, cranky, incomplete, not housebroken. Why else would I write the kinds of things I write if I were a nice normal person?”
     At times, however, he can be nice and normal. He is working with travel writer Tom Miller to publish a book of remembrances of RPCV writer Moritz Thomsen. And lately he has even been saying nice things about RPCV books, just to help out fellow Peace Corps writers. When I write to him, I know I’ll get a postcard, quickly scribbled and virtually unreadable. I need to enlarge it in the photocopier to decipher the few sentences of support, encouragement, and occasionally praise.
     When I last saw him in New York, it was after the publication of The Pillars of Hercules and he was doing a reading at a small upper East Side bookstore. It was a hot night, hot as one of those Mediterranean islands he had just written about, and when I arrived he was backed against a pillar by a very thin, very nervous female publicist from Putnam, his publisher. He was surprisingly relaxed and chatty in his presentation, and read only a short section, took questions from the crowd of 50 or so, and told some travel stories. He linked his many journeys together, making it seem that all this travel formed an orderly career and was not just done for random assignments that carried him away to far-off places.
     Theroux finished talking about travel and the Mediterranean and his book, and accepted the polite East Side applause. Then there were copies of the book to be signed. Before he left, I introduced myself to him again and we talked briefly, but he was anxious to leave.
     When he was gone, I wished I had made more of the exchange, or had asked him to lunch. I recalled Ron Arias’s account of being with Theroux in Hawaii and meeting a middle-aged hitchhiker who said he had just beaten up his best friend. Theroux, says Ron, immediately began to interrogate the man, hungry always for anything dangerous, off-limits, at the edge. I should have spoken up.
     But the moment was gone. I’d write him, I told myself, and get yet another illegible postcard from Hawaii. Or somewhere.

Africa Shaped Him
Few of us, RPCVs or otherwise, would have his talent for language. Or his stamina. It is easier, of course, not to try. It’s always easier to stay behind at the gymkhana and not go native. It’s always easier not to write at all.
     But those early years in Africa shaped him. There, as he said, he discovered what to write, and why.

John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

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