Time magazine’s notice was particular; it spoke of riot and intrusion, an infant war: it named Malawi. So Malawi was important. Murder, the equatorial commonplace, mattered to the world; a rumor of death had put Malawi on the American projection of the map, as tulips had done for Holland.
It is in Malawi, a tiny Central African republic caught between dictator and agitator, that Paul Theroux’s brilliant new novel takes place. Here are tested the ideals of two men, an American fired with zeal to dispense life insurance to Africans and a messianic white revolutionary whose specialty is bombs. When Calvin Mullet of Homemakers’ Mutual is taken prisoner by the ruthless Marais and attempts to sell him a policy, their lives become strangely and irrevocably linked.
One pursues his guerrilla war and the other his proselytization of instant security. But each in his own way is forced to see how inadequate his ideals are and must face the apathy or malice of those whom he believed he could save. Tied to the spartan life and harsh judgments of the mercenary leader, Marais fights bitterly to hold together his ragged band of Africans and maintain their purpose. For Calvin, life becomes, if not easier, less rigorous once he recognizes the futility of his ambitions and turns to the slovenly comforts of Auntie Zeeba’s Eating House, the congenial brothel where he makes a home for his black wife.
But when, finally, the manuscript which Calvin has toyed with and rejected in disgust - - the fictitious diary of a downtrodden and uninsured African -- is stolen and adopted as the bible of Marais’s followers, it appears inevitable that the American should be drawn into the impending explosion of violence.