Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
THERE ARE THOSE AMONGST US who long to outlaw art as a waste of energy. These are usually the same folks who talk about money and practicality. Strange, but when we review human history — the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, Mayas, Incans — nobody cared enough about merchants to even jot down their names. We remember statesmen, military leaders, builders and most of all, artists. In many cases, the artists were also royalty who supervised statesmen, military leaders and builders.
Tomas Belsky understands the power of art. He created a book filled with poetry, colored plates of paintings and personal experience essays about Brazil’s Northeast between 1965 and 1967. In a humorous, free verse poem titled “Finding Tomas,” Belsky explains how he lost the “h” in his first name. A Brazilian poet had him write his first name on a scrap of paper, then cut each letter out. He placed the “h” in a cardboard matchbox and set it on fire before chanting and dancing. “Unnecessary letters!” he exclaimed. Belsky reports, “I’ve been Tomas ever since.”
He was a “B.A. Generalist” during those hectic years when Peace Corps Volunteers numbered more than 15,000 world wide, and 500 in Brazil. In fact, the majority of Volunteers who served in the Americas and the Caribbean worked in Community Development. During that era, Volunteers trained stateside before flying off to change the world. Belsky learned Portuguese in Tempe, Arizona — one of the least Brazilian places on earth. Once in Brazil, most Volunteers were sent to the hinterland without formal jobs. Belsky started a hammock factory, tried to invent a cheap water filter, attempted a methane gas conversion program based upon donkey and oxen droppings, tinkered with a washing machine powered by a see-saw and then started literacy classes and even art co-operatives, all the while living in a slum without running water and only intermittent electricity.
In one especially entertaining essay, the author explains how he and his artist friends wondered if they could produce their own shellac, an expensive material they used. Since shellac is called “cockroach wings” in Brazil and they were very plentiful (“By candlelight these baratas loomed monstrous on the walls . . .”), he wrote to professors at Stanford University who were assigned Peace Corps support. Months afterwards (this was before the invention of the internet), he received a letter from three Stanford specialists. The author waited for the arrival of his Brazilian counterparts before opening it. With an audience, he ripped open the envelope, read and translated, “There is no way . . .to make anything of commercial value from cockroach wings . . .. Pure fantasy! And we at the laboratory are dismayed that you do not know that shellac is produced from the wings of the tiny female ‘lac’ bug of India . . .” The distinguished scientists went on to suggest “cucaracha races.”
The essays also describe Iraci, a slum beauty who desperately wants to reunite with an American friend. “Iraci . . . was hell-bent on making her dream a reality . . . to get and keep her American Navy namorado and escape to paradise Denver.” She is included in several essays, badgering Belsky about helping her to get travel papers. He finally accompanied her to government offices, run by the Brazilian military as a consequence of a military take-over only two years before. As they stood in line to board an elevator, Iraci pushed her way to the front, followed by Belsky, past a Brazilian colonel. Once aboard the crowded elevator, button-to-button with the uniformed officer, the colonel pulled out a pistol and pressed it to the author’s chest as he told him, “No one pulls that shit on me!” Iraci “let out a barrage of insults” while Tomas apologized. Luckily, the colonel did not shoot, and later, Iraci, “papers in hand, waved goodbye.”
Belsky did not shy away from any situation. In another piece, he describes the sobering funeral of a teenage Brazilian woman who died after a botched abortion. Inside a simple wooden coffin, “lay a light-skinned delicately structured girl, hands folded above the waist atop a simple white and pink cotton dress.” She was taken to the woods where her coffin was laid next to a hole, “atop a mound of dirt, objects, trinkets, and flowers.” An Indian girl stepped forward. “Poor Fofo, she is just like us. We like her.”
The book is illustrated with color plates of original ink water color paintings by the author and tempra paintings by his Brazilian friends. He has also included plates showing the covers of popular 1960s Brazilian dime novels. His book is like a folk artist’s chalice of remembrances. Poetry intersperses the narrative like flower petals. Tomas Belsky proved his Brazilian friend Chico right: “Chico insisted I was an Artist before I had a clue.”
The same author who once threatened to sue the Peace Corps for ruining his life (“I could have been an accountant!”), can be contacted each Wednesday and Saturday on Hilo (Hawaii) at the Farmer’s Market where he hawks books, art and draws portraits. The author of two plays and painter of murals in San Francisco and Hilo which document 20th century worker’s movements, Belsky is an artist in the fullest sense. His art can be viewed at TomasBelsky.com.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of ten books and seven pamphlets — some of which have received note. His latest book, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir, is available at the online iUniverse bookstore and will soon be available on Amazon.com.