Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) is considered by many to be our ‘great’ Peace Corps writer. He is considered by others to be our most overlooked great American writer. Moritz was the author of a Peace Corps memoir Living Poor, the first of his three published books. He died of cholera in Guayaquil, Ecuador on August 28, 1991. Back in the days of our ‘old’ website: www.peacecorpswriters.org, we published a long essay on Moritz written by Marcus Covert who had reached out to me for any background information I might have on Moritz.
Marc had learned about Moritz Thomsen through a piece by Pat Joseph in Salon.com, published in July 1998, titled “The Saddest Gringo.” He borrowed a copy of Living Poor and was hooked immediately. It didn’t take him long to burn through Farm on the River of Emeralds, The Saddest Pleasure, and My Two Wars, then he was, as he wrote, “pretty bummed about running out of Thomsen books.” He found out about Moritz’s unpublished manuscript, “Bad News from a Black Coast,” and started talking to as many of Thomsen’s friends and colleagues as he could. He amassed a small mountain of letters, notebooks, diaries, newspaper columns, etc. and thought about writing a biography of Thomsen. Currently, Marc is a writer and editor on the marketing and communications staff at the University of Portland, Oregon.
In the series that Marian Beil and I began on our former website entitled, To Preserve and to Learn, we published this essay by Marcus about Moritz Thomsen. I thought you might like to read about Moritz Thomsen as viewed by a non-RPCV.
Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor
by Marcus Covert
THERE IS A BIT OF A DONNYBROOK taking place in the world of book lovers these days. It seems Jonathan Franzen, on tour to promote his latest offering, The Corrections, has been expressing his dismay at being chosen as one of the Anointed Few to be invited by Oprah Winfrey to appear on her monthly book club program. Oprah heard of his hesitancy to take her oft-suckled teat and liked it not; as a result she withdrew her offer, setting the stage for a good old-fashioned brawl between “elitist” authors like Franzen and “popular” authors like those championed by Winfrey.
This sort of flareup is not exactly new, but Salon’s Laura Miller saw this latest battle as her chance to make some pointed observations on this long-standing feud. In her article of October 26, “Book Lovers’ Quarrel,” Miller absolutely nails “the deeply unattractive tendency for book people to act like stingy trolls sitting atop a mound of treasure they don’t want to share. If they did, it would be a lot harder to use their reading habits as a way of feeling better than other people.”
That’s quite a statement to lob into the fray, made all the more stinging by the fact that it’s true. Perched squarely atop my own precious pile of treasured authors is a man named Moritz Thomsen. While I may offer in my own defense a long-held desire to write about him, possibly something along the lines of a full biography, I must confess a certain troll-like satisfaction that nobody I mention him to has ever heard of him. It’s a trite phrase, I admit, but Moritz Thomsen could well be the finest American writer you’ve never heard of.
Thomsen wrote four books in his lifetime: Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, The Saddest Pleasure, and My Two Wars (a fifth manuscript, Bad News from a Black Coast, is still being shuffled about by hesitant publishing companies). His life came to a painful end on August 28, 1991, in his apartment in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He was 75 years old, suffering from advanced emphysema brought on by years of chain-smoking, combined with cholera, a scourge of third-world countries; his body broken as well from a lifetime of toil as a farmer and Peace Corps Volunteer. He joined the Peace Corps at the age of 48, spent about four years as a Volunteer in Ecuador, and just never left. That’s about as much biographical information you would need to introduce excerpts of his work or even to put on dust jackets, since Thomsen’s four books are all memoirs; they contain everything he cared to say about his extraordinary (my word, not his) life.
Thomsen’s choice of memoir as his genre may partly explain his “little-known” status. When writing a memoir, it’s easy to slip into writing an autobiography, and from there into outright self-aggrandizement or self-pity, and Thomsen has been accused of both by his detractors. Tim Cahill, for one, wrote a mostly positive review of The Saddest Pleasure for the New York Times Book Review, but expressed “. . . an urge to grab Mr. Thomsen, to shake some sense into him” for what he saw as Thomsen feeling sorry for himself. But Thomsen avoids these pitfalls as long as readers see that he is writing down stories of his impressions and the stories of others’ lives, with Thomsen taking center stage only when the time has come for a good dose of self-deprecation. If he needs to point out the foibles and eccentricities of humans, he has at his disposal his favorite target for scorn – himself.
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, published by University of Washington Press originally in 1969, was Thomsen’s first book, and is considered to be one of the best accounts of the Peace Corps experience to this day. You find no easy answers to the problem of poverty in this or any of Thomsen’s works; what you do find is his unparalleled ability to observe what goes on around him, even as he becomes more and more a central figure in the mad yet beautiful, heroic, often tragic cast of characters in the coastal Ecuadorian village of Rioverde (Green River).
Thomsen writes sparingly of his motivation for joining the Peace Corps in 1965. That comes later, when we are introduced to Charlie Thomsen, Moritz’s father, a man who comes off ultimately as a monster and a source of endless torment and self-loathing, brought horribly to life in My Two Wars. He is mentioned only once in passing in Living Poor; we will get to know him better soon enough. For now, Thomsen speeds the narrative along through his initial Peace Corps training in Bozeman, Montana, and mustering out to Ecuador, where the first problem is where to send him.
His first trip into the country gives us a glimpse of one of Thomsen’s lifelong grievances: rather than being dazzled by the stupendous terrain of the Ecadorian interior, his gaze is riveted on people below the lowest rung of the social ladder: “Superimposed like a black shroud over this mountain area of natural splendor is the situation of the Indians who, since the time of the [Spanish] conquest, have been robbed, murdered, and exploited; now, centuries later, their situation is basically unchanged . . . . Since in the past all change has been for the worse, they resist all change now.” A burning rage toward the state of two-thirds of the world’s population permeates Thomsen’s work, a rage he was never able to tuck away safely for any period of time.
His initial stint cut short by a life-threatening lung infection, Thomsen re-enlists in the Peace Corps and this time finds himself in Rioverde, a small fishing village on the Ecuadorian coast, and the drama unfolds in earnest. Here he meets people who will shape his narrative not just in Living Poor, but in his other books as well: Alexandro Martinez, his neighbor and “guide” in his first weeks in Rioverde; Bill Swanson, an old gringo expatriate who never tired of bending Thomsen’s ear with tales of how “a month after you’re gone, nobody will ever know you were here”; Alvaro, the local storekeeper turned bitter enemy when Thomsen’s efforts to establish a cooperative threaten his monopoly and power; Wai, the town hero and best boy, with his perpetually pregnant wife, scrabbling hungry horde of kids, and frightening widowed mother; various minor characters like Wilson, Jorge, Pancho, Ricardo, Ernesto, Clever, and others.
Here we meet Ramon Prado, a poor young zambo or beach bum who is to figure prominently in the course of Thomsen’s life and therefore his books, in ways neither could ever have known when. Ramon comes forward as the first Rioverde resident to face up to his fears of great change and ask for help; Thomsen sets him up with half a dozen chickens and Ramon’s life is never the same. Immediately Ramon and Alexandro are seen as Thomsen’s favorites, set apart from the people of the town.
In Living Poor, Thomsen first displays his gift for understanding what it is like to live in absolute, crushing poverty, poor in a way no American will ever know:
Craziest and most interesting is the problem of incentive. Many of the people of Rioverde, for instance…didn’t want anything. To talk to a man about tripling his income was to fill him with confusion; he got nervous; he started to laugh; he wanted to go get drunk. The poor man from the moment of birth was so inundated with problems, so deprived, that to end up wanting things was a sort of insanity. What he wanted was to stay alive another day to tell jokes and visit with his friends in the sweet night air . . . he wanted ten sucres from time to time so that he could drink and dance and feel cleansed of life.
Another telling paragraph:
Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he view is rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitably takes he would kill himself.
The story in Living Poor unfolds essentially as described above, with one hopelessly complicated situation following the other, and would be depressing as well were it not for Thomsen’s ability to capture the sublime and ridiculous, often in hilarious fashion. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers then and since, he stumbled into Rioverde with the noblest of intentions and soon found himself on the receiving end of astonished, uncomprehending stares; his ideas and plans and offers of assistance were seen as sheer madness, rebuffed time and again with “the people aren’t accustomed to doing it that way.” His ventures in raising chickens, breeding pigs, planting coconut trees, and ultimately organizing the town into a cooperative are an unending roller-coaster of backbreaking labor, precarious success, and horrible defeat.
Just as the reader begins to think Thomsen has managed to become a part of Rioverde society he points out the gulf that always existed, even after years of living and working in the town. He constantly struggles to find enough to eat, paying exorbitant prices for what few eggs, cans of tuna fish, sacks of rice, and bottles of beer he can scrounge. Still he has to travel to Guayaquil every month or so to gorge himself on hamburgers, milkshakes, pork chops, and green vegetables. He realizes that, no matter what he tries to tell himself, he is never going to be a real part of a town where everyone subsists on rice, plantains, and the occasional pile of fish, while he can just pack up and go to town and stuff his face with protein. How can he consider the prices he pays to be outrageous when the money he pays is all that separates entire families from physical or financial ruin, and the eggs on his plate are desperately needed by protein-starved children?
Living Poor is simply too wonderfully written to put down once the reader becomes wrapped up in the horrifying, hilarious, heartbreaking, fascinating story that unfolds around Thomsen and Ramon, as they find themselves further and further distanced from the people of Rioverde. Thomsen’s book is not exactly a groundbreaking work – Peace Corps Volunteers have written of their experiences since before and long after Thomsen’s stint – but it stands alone by virtue of Thomsen’s unique insights and writing style. Some have found his work oppressively dark, especially the books he wrote near the end of his life, but Thomsen’s cynicism is tempered by his obvious love of people, a love he fights terribly to keep in the face of betrayals and disappointments.
MORITZ THOMSEN (Ecuador 1965-67) ENDS HIS FIRST BOOK, Living Poor, on a vague note; not really knowing what do to once his Peace Corps duty comes to an end in 1968, he simply leaves the town of Rioverde, spending an unsettling last few weeks in the town he had hoped to transform three years earlier. “My last weeks in Rioverde were punctuated by screams,” he writes in his last chapter, as well as goodbyes to those who had long since given up viewing the gringo as a novelty, and a final, slow unraveling of the cooperative he had worked to form in the little fishing town. So, too, does it appear that his ties to Ramon Prado and his family (wife Ester and baby daughter Martita) unravel: “But as I stepped off the porch to leave, Ester screamed, and I turned to see her, her face contorted and the tears streaming down her cheeks. We hugged each other, and Ramon rushed from the house and stood on the brow of the hill looking down intently into town.”
Thomsen’s exit from Rioverde itself proved to be a lasting one, but he spent not even a full year back home in his native Seattle, Washington before he was back in Ecuador looking to keep a promise he made to Ramon: to come back and buy a farm with him, and to work as equal partners. He chronicles the first six years of their tumultuous partnership in his second book, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, published originally in 1978. He mentions his father Charlie in passing once again – “my father has just died, I have ten thousand dollars in my pocket” – and just as quickly, the elder Thomsen is dropped from the narrative. The plan seems so simple: Thomsen provides the money and know-how gleaned from his years as a pig farmer in the States following his service in WWII; Ramon, a much younger man than Thomsen (who has just turned 53), provides the toil and guides the old gringo in the ways of the Ecuadorian jungle; on a deeper level, Ramon is to play the son to Thomsen’s new role as cranky elder, together to forge a new life on their own terms. They find a farm on the Esmereldas River (“River of Emeralds”) and grin through their terror as they agree to buy it and enter into “that most delicate and intimate of relationships – a business partnership.”
“Now we had it,” Thomsen writes of the sprawling jungle farm, “or it had us.”
And in no time at all Thomsen’s dreams of living peacefully as an equal to all around him, brought back to life by a perfect relationship – Thomsen as teacher and the young, fully alive Ramon as pupil, living an idyllic existence in the finest tradition of “the brotherhood of man” – crashes down around him. A cast of characters materializes from the jungle, ready to join Thomsen, the lone gringo, and Ramon, with his pregnant wife and young daughter. He finds himself once again a subject of curiosity among the locals; they come to him for jobs, treating him as the new patron or “big daddy,” unable to fathom the idea that Ramon, a black man like them, seemingly as poor as they, could really be half owner of the huge farm, an equal to the strange white man who has come to live among them. The ensuing struggles for power and respect and survival drive Thomsen’s book through to its explosive conclusion six years later.
Each chapter of The Farm on the River of Emeralds centers on these characters. “The People of Male” is about a sort of conglomeration of local men (boys among them as well, although in poor societies you don’t find “teenagers,” just sickly infants and toddlers who seem to one day skip ahead to full, wounded adulthood). They just seem to come with the property at first: “They mistook our pity for weakness, or perhaps they thought we were so stupid that we found them indispensable,” he writes. At first they drive Ramon and Thomsen crazy with their laziness and ineptitude – Thomsen often creeps up on them only to find them napping in the fields surrounded by orange and banana peels, or they see him coming and the whole group suddenly erupts into a slashing, frenzied blur of machetes and axes. He can’t always bring himself to fire them, though; rather, he ends up hiring many of their sons and brothers, and begins to see not just laziness in their work habits:
Yet, watching, I began to grieve for them, for they were still under the illusion of their power to direct their own lives, lost in the magnificence of the newly awakened awareness of their own manhood, lost in their dreams of how they would conquer life. How modest their expectations and, in this brutal land, how impossible to fulfill. I knew they had no future; they lacked the opportunities and the inner discipline to do anything but end up like their fathers. Have you ever watched a little herd of lambs as they frisk and play in the slaughterhouse corral? . . . Watching them, one forgave them everything – they were so trapped, so doomed. On the weekends it seemed relatively unimportant that they were impossibly lousy workers.
Thomsen is learning, and fast, that applying “middle-class North American standards” to the culture of poverty he is now smack in the middle of makes no sense whatsoever, and will serve only to alienate him further from his neighbors:
O.K., so the worker doesn’t work very well because he eats so badly. O.K., so out of desperation a man steals. Now it gets complicated and confusing. How can this poor worker who suffers so from malnutrition dance for twelve hours straight or, on Sunday afternoons, play futbol [soccer] with such fierce sustained enthusiasm? Why does the thief like as not end up in the local saloon, dead drunk from the sale of your radio or his neighbor’s chickens? . . . And now that worst and most delicate of questions, which made the head reel, Wasn’t it possible that the man who stole your radio actually regarded you as his friend?
It’s probably no coincidence that The Farm on the River of Emeralds often reads like a war narrative – Thomsen served as a bombardier on a B-17 squadron in the European theater in World War II – and it was a war with many fronts. His equal partnership with Ramon is cause for many heated, painful exchanges; at the same time they must present a united front to the local workers, who bring their own battles and demands to the farm. Thomsen’s Peace Corps experience has left him with a belief that modern farming techniques can be the salvation of third-world farmers (“I had wanted to stun the province with twentieth-century technology . . . that modern system of that uses fifteen times more energy per acre than a farmer in an undeveloped country.”), a belief that dissolves in the face of monsoon-like rains, failed crops, non-existent markets, and the intractable mindset of desperately poor people, the “Walking Wounded” of a full chapter.
In that and other chapters Thomsen singles out individual members of the tragedy/comedy unfolding around him: “Dalmiro,” an “old, white-haired, toothless, barefoot, wrinkled, wreck of a man” with a raging libido and a disturbing habit of getting shitfaced drunk and urinating on the other workers as they slept; “The Brothers Cortez,” a “package deal” of four brothers who both exasperated and mesmerized their long-suffering bosses; “Santo and the Peanut Pickers” recounts perpetually horny Santo and his Quixote-like quest for love (“With Santo, love was everything, habit nothing. Wasn’t this perhaps his greatest virtue, that he refused to accept and live with stale and exhausted emotions? And wasn’t this perhaps his tragedy?”).
Thomsen’s writing is filled with foreshadowing, as well as visions that border on mystical, but perhaps what really defines his style is the use of shattering epiphany. His life was filled with them – moments of absolute, terrifying clarity that destroy whatever perceptions he clung to in order to survive, and setting the course for the next stage of his life:
There are certain days in life so packed with horror or revelation that if you survive them your whole past stands rendered, the essence so distilled and clarified that it is impossible to keep on deluding yourself. In the revelation department one thinks of those religious conversions that strike one down like lightning, turning drunkards or thieves into missionaries. Days of revelation are the mileposts in life at which one makes ninety-degree turns or puts a bullet through one’s head or murders one’s wife or loops back violently, seeking again in the innocent past what had gradually faded away and made existence chaotic or meaningless.
One such experience leads him to join the Peace Corps in 1964 – a twenty-four hour stretch during which he finally sees his California hog farm is doomed, finished; he has to put down his beloved dogs, sell his pigs, shut down the farm where he is already reduced to living in an unheated tool shed, and stand for the first time in a room filled with his butchered hogs: “I had fallen under the malevolent eye of God, and He had more tricks up His sleeve. I didn’t know if I could take any more that day, but I remember thinking, ‘It’s coming, whether or not you can take any more, and it’s coming today.'” It comes, all right, when a cow is dispatched right in front of him by a grinning slaughterhouse employee. As far as Thomsen was concerned, he was every bit as finished. A Peace Corps commercial on television that night put an idea in his shorted-out brain; it must have looked like a modern-day Foreign Legion: “Spewed out of that deadening rural life, screaming with rage and self-pity, as bloody and battered as a new born child, I was given another chance at a brand new kind of life.”
The revelations didn’t stop once Thomsen left the United States; his first book, Living Poor, is filled with them. But Thomsen was a man of incredible stubbornness, a trait he applied to his belief that he could change the world in true Peace Corps fashion, and one after the other, he finds himself facing up to awful, shattering truths about his convictions. One that nearly does him in in The Farm on the River of Emeralds comes in “Victor,” a chapter near the end of the book on one of their most beloved (and ultimately disappointing) employees. Finally faced with the naked truth that Victor has been robbing Ramon and Thomsen blind, Ramon fires him, kicks him off the farm, shattering the façade of harmony they both had valued enough to turn a blind eye on Victor’s betrayals. It’s the last straw, says Ramon, no more Mr. Nice Guy; the people for miles around steal from them and see that nothing is done and damn the reasons for their thievery or desperation, he’s going to do something about it. Ramon rejects their new ideas for how to run a farm, asking, “do you know how they control the stealing?” at a large coconut farm up the river. Thomsen knows: “Every year they shoot a few thieves right out of the trees.” Thomsen watches Ramon as he leaves for his house that night:
How he had changed since I first knew him, how hard and sad and stubborn his face. I thought of those two ultimate sins, the two unforgivable sins against life: to murder and to be poor. Poor Ramon. It looked like he was moving toward that awful moment when he would have to commit the first one to get saved from committing the second.
It never comes to that in The Farm on the River of Emeralds, but the change in Ramon and the disintegration of his partnership with Thomsen loom large in the final chapters. As with Thomsen’s other books, this one raises far more questions than it could ever pretend to answer. Thomsen demonstrates that he is one of those unfortunate souls who must constantly seek out reasons and motivations – what is it that makes a man steal pennies from your pockets as you sleep or punch his wife in a drunken rage or slash his neighbor with a rusty machete? But what Thomsen does best is observe what it is that leads to the way the dramas unfold around him, not taking the outrages and constant thievery and disgraceful behaviors he writes about at face value, never taking the easy route.
MORITZ THOMSEN WROTE HIS FINAL BOOKS in the years after he left his jungle farm near Esmereldas, Ecuador. He made good on a promise made at the end of Farm on the River of Emeralds by buying a large tract of land across the river from the farm he shared with his partner, Ramón Prado. For four years, he attempted to eke out an existence raising corn, tropical fruit, and coconuts, and other failed ventures. Whatever intentions he may have had to free Ramón from his role as Good Son to Thomsen’s Big Daddy, the new farm’s location made it necessary for Ramón to come across the river by boat nearly every day to bring groceries, cigarettes, newspapers – any of life’s necessities that could not be raised on a remote jungle farm.
The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers is a memoir written by Thomsen partly to tell the story of the disintegration his relationship with Ramón. For all practical purposes, he was a part of Ramón’s family, a grandfather to the Prado children – daughter Martita and son, Ramóncito (“Little Ramón”). Thomsen sets his tale as part memoir, part travelogue, and part devastating commentary on the rapacious practices of a capitalistic world bent on destroying huge chunks of South American society. The title is taken from a line in Picture Palace by Paul Theroux (“Which Frenchman said, ‘Travel is the saddest of the pleasures’?”); in fact Theroux wrote the Introduction to Saddest Pleasure.
Thomsen is sixty-three years old at the time of his journey; the year is about 1978 or 1979 (Thomsen’s style pays little attention to concrete dates, he makes you work to keep your bearings, and gleefully plays havoc with chronological order when it helps the narrative; he at least warns the reader in advance). He wastes little time in getting to the reason for his extended trip:
Ramón, my best friend, my partner, that jungle-wise black who was supposed to support me through the crisis of my sixties and at the end see me decently buried, had lost his nerve. He had driven me off the farm. The details were so outrageous that now, almost a year later, I still cannot bear to think about it.
. . . Kicked off the farm, I went to live in Quito. . . . I found a small apartment with a view of a cement wall . . . I bought a bed, a table, and four plates, three more than I needed. How awful it was to be of no use to anyone, to awaken in the mornings and be unable to think of a single reason for crawling out of bed. One day out of desperation it occurred to me that finally I might make a trip.
Thomsen’s journey takes him to Brazil, and in Rio de Janeiro he is faced once again with the crushing poverty that pervades life in South America. Eating in a small restaurant, he is served a huge bowl of potato salad (“I order what I think is a tossed Italian salad” – despite some 15 years spent living in Ecuador, Thomsen still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of Spanish, and the Portuguese of Brazil is beyond his grasp). He pushes the half-eaten bowl away, and
. . . immediately a Negro who has been standing against the wall and made invisible by some large potted plants appears by the next table and with the fierce power of his concentration impales me with his look. He stares into the bowl of salad, brings one hand to his mouth, and implores me with the other hand, the palm up, open and vulnerable . . . . I offer him the salad; he takes it and sits at the next table, hunched over the food, eating rapidly. We do not look at each other again for there is something unspeakable in that desperate hunger that lies between us like an accusation.
Walking in the street I consider with confusion that good feeling I had had at offering a hungry man my garbage.
Although it does not take place on this trip, Thomsen recounts a journey he made to Lima, Peru, years before. He sought out a church in that huge, sprawling city of eight million people that contains the mummified remains of Francisco Pizarro, the infamous Spanish conquistador, founder of Lima and conqueror of the Incas. Standing before the body, Thomsen took advantage of his opportunity to spit on the floor at the head of the glass coffin. He sees Pizarro as “the greatest capitalist the world has even known”:
…and his figure, the eyes still flashing with avarice, still strides across the continent, across the world. . . . The manipulators of technology are the new Pizarros; the directors of the multinationals are the new rulers of the world – nice men with gentle manners some of them, connoisseurs of wine, modern art, beautiful women. . . . They are the most honored men, sharing the admiration of the world with the politicians whom they have bought off and who serve them. . . . These guys may own the world, but they don’t control it: they are puppets caught up and driven ahead by the cresting wave of an incredible science that is way past their power to control: they are puppets blind to the consequences of their actions, alive only to the big chance. They are the bastards, these sober-suited Pizarros, who are going to kill us all.
The Saddest Pleasure is, like all of Thomsen’s published works, impossible to pigeonhole into any one category. What makes it such an important and powerful book is the far-ranging sweep of Thomsen’s ire as he rages against the powers that have been strangling all of South America for centuries. It’s tough going at times; dark, cynical, utterly stark in the hopelessness he sees in the future of that huge, complicated continent. It is writing that is heartbreaking in its timelessness – a book written during the early eighties and published in 1990, Saddest Pleasure is still right on the money in 2002. Ongoing drug wars; roving gangs of murderous thugs; huge tidal waves wiping out villages where most people don’t have two sucres to rub together; rioting and demonstrations over gasoline prices; hordes of refugees from neighboring Colombia; crushing debt unforgiven by developed countries or the World Bank; police corruption and brutality – things have not changed enough (for the better or worse) in Ecuador or South America to make Thomsen’s twenty-year-old writing lose its relevance:
Poor raped South America. We lie over her in a kind of post-coitus triste but beginning to feel the itch of a new engorgement. After Pizarro it was all so easy. We won’t roll away from her yet; she still has the power to enflame our lusts, and her feeble efforts to roll away from us strike us as being not quite sincere. She has not yet been raped into madness like her black African sister.
My Two Wars
It is in The Saddest Pleasure that Thomsen finally brings to life one of the great, awful characters in non-fiction literature: his father, Charles Thomsen, himself the son of one of the classic Robber Baron characters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – Thomsen’s namesake grandfather, who made a fortune in the flour mill business in the Pacific Northwest. Did Moritz, writing in Saddest Pleasure, really see his father, dead since 1969, standing before a statue in some square, or walking out of a bar, or standing before him as he tried to sleep in the hot, Brazilian night? No matter, it helps the story – Thomsen’s writing is filled with mystical visions and shattering revelations – and in introducing Daddy he sets the stage for his last great book, the posthumously published My Two Wars.
The Saddest Pleasure was published in 1990, to mostly good reviews, but by that time Thomsen was a very sick man, 75 years old and suffering from the effects of a lifetime of backbreaking farm labor and a love-hate relationship (mostly love) with cigarettes. Spending the last 28 years of his life in the jungles of a tropical country didn’t help his physical state either; visitors (and there were many – curmudgeonly persona to the contrary, Thomsen was a gregarious man, easily driven to despair by loneliness or isolation, even if it was often self-imposed or brought about by his ability to wound deeply those who loved him most) were often shocked to find him, white hair falling out in clumps from fungal infections, teeth long gone, writing constantly and barely eating, just hanging on in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He died there on August 28, 1991, after contracting cholera and refusing relatively simple treatment that could have prolonged his life, albeit briefly.
He had seen the end approaching for years, and worked feverishly to complete two books (a third, From My Window, is reputed to have at least made it to the “taking notes” stage). Bad News from a Black Coast has languished on publishers’ desks for over a dozen years, excerpted once in Salon.com but otherwise unpublished. But he had also finished a manuscript documenting his battles with his tyrannical father, as well as his experiences as a B-17 bombardier in the European theater in World War II. My Two Wars is the result of those last years of feverish writing. The opening line, magnificent in its simplicity (“This is a book about my involvement with two great catastrophes – the Second World War and my father”) sets the tone for what could very well be the best account of the experiences of American bomber crews in WWII. The inevitable comparisons to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 don’t take away from Thomsen’s book at all.
But to get to WWII you must first clamber through the dark, riveting tale of Thomsen’s father Charlie. By all accounts a mean, cruel, repellent man, driven by a consuming desire to top his own father in amassing wealth, power, prestige – and perhaps most of all, the fawning, unquestioning sycophancy of his children – Charles Thomsen haunted Moritz until he himself died. He also had a daughter, Wilhelmina, Moritz’s younger sister, and when both children were very young his marriage to Thomsen’s mother collapsed. His remarriage and building of a huge French Provincial mansion named Wildcliffe set the stage for an abusive, surreal family scene that left lifelong scars on brother and sister alike. (Wildcliffe is still there, near Kenmore, Washington, at the end of Lake Washington, now a bed-and-breakfast.)
Publishers and reviewers alike tended to shy away from Thomsen’s war with Charlie; at the outset it can seem that readers could not possibly be as engrossed with the father-vs.-son battles of My Two Wars as Thomsen was in writing about them. But the story of this domineering, hopelessly tortured man, and the shambles he makes of his own life and those of everyone around him, is integral to the story of Moritz Thomsen’s life. He never quite managed to put his father to rest, and never was able to forgive himself for sticking to the old man, remora-like, for no other reason than to avoid being cut completely out of his will (which almost happened anyway – the bulk of Charlie Thomsen’s estate was left to anyone who could come up with a contraceptive for cats).
Thomsen had already been drafted into the Army for over a year when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought his relatively easy, well-ordered life to a crashing halt. For all the abuse he endured from his father, the old man was rich, and Moritz spent his days as a young man skiing, camping, mountain climbing, fly-fishing, and indulging what was evidently a healthy sexual appetite whenever the chance presented itself. Even in the Army Thomsen discovered that he could volunteer for permanent KP and be spared the rigors of barracks life in exchange for endless potato peeling and pot scrubbing. But Pearl Harbor made him want to be a hero, and he entered the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force, in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot. Years later, writing in his apartment in Guayaquil, he reflected on that day:
It was only years later that I understood the menacing quality of that late afternoon. It had about it an awful sense of a slumbering portentousness that emptied the air of life and continuity. It was like a gigantic stutter, an awful stopping of time, a hiatus that promised horrific changes. In a very real sense that day in December of 1941 was the true beginning of the twentieth century. That day the Depression was officially over, the ownership of America changed hands, bankrupt American farmers, the last symbols of an agricultural America built on the principles of Jeffersonian democracy, could now desert the land for five-dollar-a-day jobs in the war factories… December seventh was the last day that the country represented an ideal for which one might with dignity offer to fight and die. Ten years later it was no longer worth fighting for. Twenty years later, when three million farmers a year were going bankrupt and the Bank of America owned most of the farmland in California and you couldn’t raise tomatoes without a $150,000 harvesting machine, it was not even a country fit to live in. Unless, of course, you enjoyed working in a factory.
Ultimately Thomsen washed out of pilot school, relegated to the post of bombardier, the man who sits in the great plexiglas bubble in the nose of a B-17 and sights in on the target miles below, then releases the payload of bombs. From his seat perched above a Norden bombsight (“It was probably John Steinbeck who had popularized the belief that bombing with the Norden, one could drop a bomb into a picklebarrel from eighteen thousand feet. Perhaps our disillusionment began when . . . our practice bombs landing in little flashes of flames a thousand feet from the center of the target, proved to us that not only could we miss a picklebarrel but the factory that made them. Plus the parking area around the picklebarrel factory and the special railroad spur that hauled off the picklebarrels and the town where ten thousand employees slaved for the war effort making picklebarrels . . . .”) Thomsen had a sweeping view of the fate of bombers around and below him – the big, lumbering planes were shot to pieces by German fighters, or blown to bits by the dreaded flak bursts from anti-aircraft guns.
In My Two Wars, Thomsen trains that same sweeping view on everything that surrounded him during the war – a devastated, weary London; drunken, hardened bomber crew members; the doomed innocents he recalls years after their deaths in the air over Berlin, France, or the English Channel; the dead members of his own crew. He writes of D-Day, where his group bombed into the front lines of smoke as instructed, only to learn to their horror afterward that the lines of smoke had moved – the American Air Corps had inadvertently dropped bombs directly in the midst of American troops. Thomsen hints at the terrible guilt one would expect from a mistake of that magnitude, but somehow soldiers thrust into situations that cause massive amounts of death and destruction must find a way to live with such guilt, or at least block it out. Thomsen addresses his own survivor guilt:
To those of us who survived combat, who flew time after time and returned to the ordinary routines, routines that at first struck us as being miraculous – eating, sleeping, bicycling along the summer roads, drinking whisky in that absolutely exclusive group of combat airmen (pleasures that gave us less and less pleasure) – a slowly growing boredom with life began to be apparent in our conscious thoughts. We were touched with shame to be still living, to be doing the same banal things in the center of that encircling and invisible and growing pile of bodies. Why had we been unchosen? There seemed to be no way to be worthy of the dead without joining them; we were in competition with the dead who had left us, and left us filled with guilt. A passion to live. A passion to die. How could we reconcile these two emotions that kept rising in us, except in the way we did, by sinking into a kind of catatonia, an emotional hibernation that was like insanity.
When Thomsen finally reached his quota of 27 combat missions, he waited out the remaining days of the war in Texas; after the Japanese surrender, he took a 30-day leave to visit Charlie at Wildcliffe and pick up some clothes, odds and ends, and his beat-up pickup truck. What happens here as he goes from one just-completed war to the other, the one that would haunt him until his dying day, is a final outbreak of hostilities as he finds his father barely bothering to cover up the fact that Moritz, the returning war hero, would have been of much more use to him dead than alive. Thomsen’s survival, he realized years later, was looked at by his father as little more than one more complication to spoil his “sunset years.”
Thomsen spent the years 1945 to 1964 as a hog farmer near Chico, California, a venture that finally failed and led to his foray into the Peace Corps, and ultimately to his 28-year stay in Ecuador. Through all of his experiences, he felt a great passion for writing, and produced countless articles and essays for publication in newspapers and magazines, to some success. But his four published books were mostly a labor of his own sunset years. All but Farm on the River of Emeralds are still in print; Bad News from a Black Coast has not attracted a publisher for twelve years, but Thomsen completed it probably just months or less before his death, so there is always the possibility of a fifth volume. Admittedly, Thomsen’s style can be a bit much for some readers – some find themselves turned off by a self-pitying tone, or uninterested in Thomsen’s hatred of his father, or his intense relationship with Ramón – but any writer who tries to express his rages and defeats and frustrations in life takes that chance. The fact remains that, to many fellow writers and a small, devoted cadre of readers, Moritz Thomsen is one of the truly great, yet unrecognized, American authors of our time.