on 15 January 2009
As probably Paul Theroux's best-known fiction work I've long wanted to read `Mosquito Coast', and not just because I am a fan of his grumpy brand of travel writing. A 1980s feature film adaptation - starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix - left a indelible mark on me, perhaps because, as a boy, I was anticipating the kind of action-adventure film which had made Harrison Ford famous. Instead, I was rather perplexed and a little horrified by what I saw; incidentally, Ford is often quoted as saying it is the film he is most proud of. Whether or not that film still stands up to scrutiny I don't know but Theroux's novel is a powerful and compelling parable about the dangers of seeking to recreate the world in your own image, a gripping allegorical thriller warning against the aggressive pursuit of utopias.
The novel revolves around a troubled `genius' Allie Fox, a charismatic inventor who drags his family out of the United States to start a new civilisation in the jungles of Honduras. Like a parallel revolutionary, he leads first by example, with a gift for impelling others with his pragmatism and oratorial skills but later resorting to tyranny and oppression to enforce his views on others, refusing to accept responsibility for his failures. Narrated by his son Charlie, the novel really centres around Allie's awe-inspiring and occasionally intimidating `Father' figure - by turns raging against and charming those he meets, dazzling some with his inventions and ideals while chucking barbed insults at others. Admittedly many of the other characters are slightly hazier, not least his wife, known only as `Mother', with the author's pen trained throughout on the contradictions and self-destructive egomania of `Father'. Demanding faith and hard work of those around him, he abandons the waste and degradation in the US for a new life based on shifting ideals dictated solely by him.
In the first part of the book, Allie Fox could almost pass as a misunderstood genius, especially when read in the current economic climate. He rails against wastefulness and greed, making compelling arguments against consumerism; his initial desire for self-sufficiency seems noble and righteous, even if he takes every opportunity possible to offend those who don't subscribe to his views:
` "We were buying shoes, and when I paid the bill I looked through the stockroom door where there was a bulletin board for the employees. A slogan's written on it in big letters. It says, "If you have sold a customer exactly what he wanted, you haven't sold him anything." A shoe shop. It made me want to go away in my old shoes ... We eat when we're not hungry, drink when we're not thirsty, buy what we don't need, and throw away everything that's useful."
His family - and anyone else in earshot - provide audience to his diatribes on the nature of capitalism, religion and civilisation, a family that he briefly extends while creating a new society in the jungle. However, it becomes quickly apparent that there is a gap between his beliefs and his actions, that he consistently refuses to admit he is wrong, except sometimes later, when it conveniences him. Despite his evident need to sermonize, for instance, and to instruct, he pillories missionaries for doing the same thing in the name of God. Similarly, his need to sound his ideas requires a congregation of sorts, which contradicts his assertion that,
"People can't stand to be alone. Can't tolerate it! So they go to the movies, get drive-in hamburgers, put their home telephone numbers in the crapsheets and say, "Please call me up!" It's sick. People hate their own company - they cry when they see themselves in mirrors."
While claiming himself to be an atheist, 'Father' starts to wield his inventions - particularly his ice-making `Fat Boy' - like miracle machines, and becomes obsessed with the idea of taking ice to the deepest recesses of the jungle, where the natives have never seen ice or been reached, and thus tainted, by missionaries or modern life. However, the need to undertake these arduous journeys is tinged with an egomaniacal will to spread his own gospel of civilisation, namely: science. Ironically, one such native community he meets try to rebuild `Fat Boy' as an obsolete idol of worship, a fact that enrages `Father'. An apparently self-taught Bible scholar, he repeteadly renounces God, while seeking to spread the wonders of science like an evangelist:
" `It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is. Fiddle around and find a use for it!' God had left the world incomplete, he said. It was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it'."
Despite his proclamations to the contrary, Allie Fox's notion of civilisation is not - to begin with, at least - to accept the material limitations of his environment. He imports metal piping and non-indigenous seeds to create his mini-Society, a fact that suggests he is not as self-sufficient as he might believe, nor does he desire to live off the land in its natural state. Our narrator, Charlie, starts to see through the facade,
" `He invented for his own sake! He was an inventor because he hated hard beds and bad food and slow boats and flimsy huts and dirt. And waste - he complained about the cost of things, but it wasn't the money. It was the fact that they got weak and broke after you bought them ... He hated sleeping outdoors. "It's lawless and unnatural to sleep on the bare ground". He always spoke tenderly about his own bed. "Even animals make beds!" ` "
This is in contrast to his attitude to eating and sleeping, which he does as little as possible, guarding them like secrets, and incredulous when others became sick. The suggestion seems to be that Father is running away from America not just to build an egalitarian society using entirely natural resources, but rather to build a society over which he has almost total influence - even if he would deny this. He scorns the modesty of the native settlements, despite having imported non-indigenous materials to create his settlement. Charlie sees a paradox at the heart of his father when he and his siblings and friends create a parallel Eden, devoid of 'Father''s marvellous contraptions, content to live "like monkeys".
Ice is a central metaphor in the novel, a kind of missionary currency of science to compete with the superstition and idolism of religion. In making ice without electricity, from a combination of ammonia and hydrogen, `Father' believes he can bring civilisation to the untameable conditions of the jungle, explaining that,
"`Mainly it's a preservative - it keeps food fresh, so it keeps you from starvation and disease. It kills germs, it suppresses pain and it brings down swellings. It makes everything it touches taste better without altering it chemically. Makes vegetables crisp and meat last forever. Listen, it's an anaesthetic. I could remove your appendix with a jack-knife if I had a block of ice to cool your nerves and take your mind off the butchery ... It's free. It's even pretty. It's civilisation'."
However, there are of course limitations to science, and on their final expedition to import a huge block of ice to a remote jungle society, they fail to deliver it before it melts entirely. He drives his children on a hellish journey through the bush, only to present a sack of melted water, subsequently refusing to admit the trip's failure - fictionalising his account of what happened. Charlie reflects,
" `His lie made me lonelier than any lie I had ever heard. Yet he had spoken it confidently and said the expedition was a triumph and he couldn't wait to tell Mother. Again and again I tried to remember ice in Father's hands and amazement on the faces of the Indians. But there was none - no ice, no surprise.' "
The gap between Father's relentless optimism and reality starts to broaden at this point, and Father increasingly resembles a dictator issuing hollow, morale-boosting propaganda, insisting on the veracity of things evidently un-true. Later in the book he delivers a tirade against his friend, Mr Haddy, who fails to see progress at their new coastal home, where Father's mind really starts to unravel:
" `I see a thriving village ... I see healthy kids. Corn in the fields, tomatoes on the vines. Fish swimming and pumps gurgling. Big soft beds. Mother weaving on a loom. Curassows that eat out of your hand. Monkeys that pick coconuts. A ropeworks. A smoke-house. Total activity! ... anyone who doesn't see it has no business here' "
There is nothing of the sort, of course, but Father won't countenance the crevasse between his ideals and the concrete reality laid bare before him. Becoming increasingly paranoid and isolated, his sons are finally driven to plotting behind his back like subjects of a failed totalitarian state.
Admittedly the final chapters of this otherwise extraordinary novel are somewhat extreme and veer towards horror: the final denouement is particularly unpleasant. Long-predating Alex Garland's `The Beach', The Mosquito Coast is both a tale of madness and megalomania and a cautionary tale against attempts to build utopias, against oppression in the name of noble principles. However much humans try to rebuild society based on ideals, they are doomed to failure because society is a reflection of our innate flaws: our ego, greed, thirst for power, and the desire to be like a god.