Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
Like many Thomsen enthusiasts, I’ve wondered where his last, elusive manuscript was, and how it might come to be published, bringing the total number of his travelogue classics to five. So when it suddenly appeared on Amazon, published, I jumped with joy. At last, 28 years after his death! And I was not disappointed; it was worth the wait.
Thomsen began talking about this book in 1980 and sent some of the manuscript to fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and author, Christopher West Davis, who told him that it was some of his best work: “he was in the zone, in top form, etc. encouraging him to keep it up…” But later on Thomsen would lament the difficulties getting it published.
This first edition was created from a photocopy of the original typed manuscript and includes his hand written notes. The book is over 300 pages, the chapters are untitled and the Index only includes a brief “Editor’s Note.” There is a Forward as well as Endnotes, which list where “unreadable texts” were located. Thirty vignettes dating from his arrival in Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1964 include snippets of characters from his previous books, which help make sense of the beauty and complex world of the Esmeraldas on the coast of Ecuador.
The Forward, entitled “FAME ma non troppo,” was written in 1996 by poet, personal friend and protector of Thomsen, Mary Ellen Fieweger, who would become his “Literary Executive” and she convinced his niece Rashani Rea to “independently publish” the manuscript. Fiewager was one of several authors who knew Thomsen and were asked to write an essay about him by authors Paul Theroux and Tom Miller for a compilation publication they referred to initially as “Moritz Memories.” In July, 1996 she sent Tom Miller a draft saying, “…You will note that it’s within (just) the 5,000 word/20 page limit stipulated. You will also note that I’ve treated everybody with kid gloves. Well, sort of…”
Although those who have read Thomsen’s previous books will note additional details and insights into characters and circumstances they recognize, this book is a stand-alone publication and includes several spectacular stories, like the following passage on creativity and an author’s responsibility when facing human degradation and violence:
A stunning revelation labeled “(a Postscript) 1984” starts with,
Almost twenty years passed between that Sunday morning when I watched two blood-soaked men circling and slashing at each other with machetes in a jungle clearing and the time when I wrote about it and tried to put down what I had seen…
Twenty years after the brutal incident he makes a “confession:”
…what had basically motivated those two men to suddenly rise up and kill one another had in truth been part of a little plan in which I as a writer would be presented the cruel and stupid and heartbreaking horror and for no reason except what I might choose to get out of it. It was not the two bleeding men fainting in their pools of blood who were the leading characters in the drama. I was the leading character. If it were God then, stage manager in charge of production….He was a God of taste, an artist….The deepest mystery of all-why me? Blushing I considered the explanation that had been offered to me then buried the whole idea and didn’t write about that Sunday for twenty years. When I did I left out God.
This story becomes even more bizarre, and the creative process comes alive when Thomsen describes reading a story from Russian-born American novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote Lolita and like Thomsen has been compared to Joseph Conrad. While reading in his two-story writing “tower” on his farm, Thomsen realizes that Nobokov has written the same story, and says,
I came to the end and sat there up above the farm stunned into an ecstasy of joy…Discounting the quality of the writing and my cowardice set against his courage, our stories were the same, enough the same at any rate to make me pant like a dog, make me laugh and cry at the same time. I sat there shaking all over, joined for what turned out to be somewhat less than the next minute into a sacred partnership with that writer I admired above all others but I couldn’t just sit there; I had to move, dance, fly. Feeling as though I had grown wings at my heels, I rushed down the stairs, yanked open the front door, stepped out onto something I shouldn’t have stepped out on, and now, flying at last, flying like a bird parallel to the earth with my wings like helicopter blades, fell out of my house…
With that Thomsen lands on a pile of cement blocks breaking his wrist and skull, and cracking some ribs and “blood al gusto” (blood everywhere—Thomsen’s words) When he came to, Nobokov, who had recently died, knelt beside him, “Don’t worry, my darling,” he whispered. “This too, you will one day write about.”
Thomsen demonstrates a great appreciation for and understanding of his eyes and ears in the local communities of the Esmeraldas: his friend, his partner, the “Zambo” Ramon and his family. He gives Ramon an entire chapter to tell his stories of the constant and varied forms that local thievery takes, locals constantly inventing new ways not to work and to live off the labor of others.
But Ramon takes him to task for one of Thomsen’s stories,
“You said…that when I was six years old my mother ran off with another man and left her children, almost like a fallen woman. My God, how can you write things like that?”
“You told me: it was the truth,” I said, blushing with shame. “You know I’ve never liked your mother for what she did to her children. And neither did you, you told me.” “My God,” Ramon cried, “that was my mother. I told you. It was between us.” He was so absolutely right that I felt sick and defenseless; in stripping him clean, to present a man who had suffered and had the scars to prove it, I had humiliated him. No one in the world is allowed not to love his mother. The miracle was that though I had translated all those parts to him—and many times—he had never caught on for twenty-five years….
The book ends with one of Thomsen’s favorite words, “thunderstruck,” when something makes no sense at all, as when you finally find out who stole all your cameras over the years…something Thomsen never failed to complain and wonder about in his previous books.
I hope this will be the first of many printings, followed by new editions which will enhance the interest and circulation of this fabulous book. Although the book was published in December of 2018, it only has two reviews—one by John Thorndike, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Bad News from a Black Coast, as of this writing, is ranked 1347th for “Globalization and Politics.”
Now that Eland Press of London is publishing new editions of Thomsen’s first four books and this is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Living Poor, what better time to ask a renowned author and friend of Thomsen like Paul Theroux or Tom Miller to write the Forward? Possibly include some maps and a timeline to help those unfamiliar with Ecuador and Thomsen’s long, productive life. Also some graphics such as his sketches and self-portrait and possibly a postscript with some of the many fascinating letters he wrote to well-known authors and publishers around the world? And…some review statements on the back cover from some of the many authors who revered the author and his talent?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Mark Walker (Guatemala.1971-73) implemented fertilizer experiments in Guatemala and Honduras, although his most important accomplishment was his marriage to his wife, and their three children, all born in Guatemala. Following earning an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in Austin, Mark co-founded a Guatemalan development agency and then managed child sponsorship. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, won Honorable Mention in the Arizona Literary Award competition. Mark and his wife, Ligia, live in Scottsdale, Arizona close to their three children and seven grandchildren.