Short Story: Incident in the Oriente – Paul Theroux

Published in the July 2011 issue of Harper’s, “Incident in the Oriente” by Paul Theroux reads like a 19th century adventure story steeped in imperialism and the power of one man’s will over others.

The story is told in first person, from the perspective of one of the men on Max Moses’ work crew.  Max Moses is a private contractor hired by governments to complete projects in developing nations.  Even though Moses is a small man with a lisp “his tenacity and godlike resourcefulness in getting his people to obey him seemed to enlarge him.  Though he could be chivalrous even in the worst conditions, we knew our lives depended on our obedience to him.”  The descriptions remind me of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a powerful man in a remote area who dominates the landscape and the people around him.  The narrator goes on and says, “in another age Moses would have been the captain of a clipper ship, or even a general, as he said, or an explorer in the pay of a king who wanted gold from a far-off jungle.”

While the story revolves around the cold way in which Moses is able to regain control of his crew, it’s a critique of our current society.  When viewed from a lens like Fight Club, there seems to be no recourse for men full of aggression or disappointed with society, but to lash out at one another in violence.  That strikes me as an immature view.  It could be the world of Fight Club is far in our past since the September 11th attacks, two wars in the Middle East, Arab Spring and other humanitarian crises.  Now, there is a place for men like Moses.  It is the gray area of private contracting, a mixture of mercenaries and the East India Trading Company, but under the banners of Blackwater and Haliburton.  Colonialism and imperialism are reviled, but what does it say about a society when it creates entities similar to those that existed in the past?

In a speech to his crew, Moses says,

“It is government work for money—not patriotism or justice.  No abstractions.  We aim for results.  I have spent my whole working life as a contractor—in Kuwait, in Uganda, in Brazil.

The type of government doesn’t matter, as long as we are paid in dollars.  Most of the world is in the hands of megalomaniacs.  We were hired to complete this job, and by God we’ll accomplish it.  Think of us as commandos.”

There is a place in the world for people like Kurtz and Moses, but is it the world we want?

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