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.