LIVING POOR and THE SADDEST PLEASURE: Two by Moritz Thomsen
Reviewed for BookMarks/SIETAR by Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72)
There’s a movement afoot (led in part by Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73), see the interview below) to elevate Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) to the status of a Very Important Writer, someone whose books stay in print for generations and get assigned in college literature classes, someone whose name every well-read person should know. And we here at BookMarks SIETER [Society of Intercultural Education, Training and Research USA] are happy to do our part. We briefly mentioned Thomsen in one of our previous columns (where we reviewed two Peace Corps memoirs), and now the time has come to bring him front and center.
Living Poor: An American’s Encounter with Ecuador (image is the cover second edition) is widely considered the quintessential Peace Corps memoir. With deepest apologies to all my Peace Corps friends, that’s damning with faint praise; Living Poor is a great memoir, period, and easily transcends both the Peace Corps and the memoir genres. It is the story of Thomsen’s close to four years as an agricultural development volunteer in Rioverde, an exceptionally poor village on Ecuador’s southern coast, but at a deeper level it’s the slowly unfolding story of a middle class, middle-aged American’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to understand poverty — or at least poor people. That Thomsen fails, or at least believes he has failed, does not detract from the power of the story, since in the end it is about his relationships with a handful of people, characters so beautifully drawn, so alive, that you care about them every bit as much as Thomsen. (If one is a writer or has any writing aspirations whatsoever, these characters are what might be called heartbreakingly alive, as in it breaks one’s heart to realize one could never create characters so real oneself).
But I digress. Living Poor is mainly about chickens, eggs, pigs, corn, bananas, and the jungle. Thomsen’s Peace Corps assignment is to help poor farmers raise chickens and pigs, plant kitchen gardens, clear land so they can plant corn and coconuts — and assorted other first-world schemes not designed with dirt-poor farmers living at the edge of equatorial rainforests uppermost in mind. There are setbacks: the people are way too poor to afford chicken feed; the chickens die of cholera; the pigs break through weak fences and wander off; one good rain washes away everyone’s kitchen garden; corn stalks wither and die. The second half of the book deals with Thomsen’s attempts to start a farmers’ co-op whereby people for whom a stick of sugar cane is on occasion their only meal will learn to temporarily sacrifice immediate personal and family welfare for the slightly delayed promise of improved living standards for all. More setbacks follow.
Above all Living Poor is the story of Ramon Prado and his wife Ester and, later, their little daughter Martita (destined to be Martin until she turned out to be a girl). Thomsen ends up caring so deeply about this family it hurts. And their love for him is total. The last paragraph of the book, as Thomsen comes to say good bye at the end of his time in Rioverde, a paragraph so lovely it would stand out by a mile in any other book, is pure Thomsen:
So I drank the coffee, and Ramon told Martita to say good-by, pretending outrage because she was smiling, and then I said good-by to Ester, and everything was under control, everything like a dream. But as I stepped down off the porch to leave, Ester screamed, and I turned to see her, her face contorted with 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 the town.
Where else can you read anything as beautiful as that?
You have to be in the mood for travel books; even the best ones are necessarily episodic, a series of vignettes, each delightful in itself, to be sure, but with the parts not always adding up to any particular whole, and the book, as a result, not building to the kind of climax readers expect as their reward for sticking with the author. For this reason, although I deeply admired Living Poor and its stunning sequel A Farm on the River of Emeralds, I’ve always been wary of The Saddest Pleasure, as I understood it to be mostly a travel book, meaning that I’d have to be in the mood. So, I have only read it just now so I could write this review.
I should have known better; it’s Moritz, after all, who just can’t write a book that doesn’t cast a spell early on and grip you till the end. The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers is ostensibly the story of a trip Thomsen takes from his home in Quito to Rio and then up the Amazon from Belem to Manaus. But the book is mostly a journey into Thomsen’s past, specifically the story of his relationship with his father, a monster whom he loathed and in reacting to whom, he now realizes, he became the man we meet in the pages of his books, and the story of the final chapter of Thomsen’s relationship with Ramon Prado and his family, the hero of Living Poor and of A Farm on the River of Emeralds. In between these two gripping narratives, we get beautifully written glimpses of Brazil and the Amazon and marvelous character sketches of Thomsen’s travelling companions. It is a credit to Thomsen’s powers that although the journey is more or less a complete bust — he never even arrives in Manaus before the book ends — the reader hardly notices because the real journey here is almost entirely internal and completely compelling.
There’s a lot of soul searching here, in short, and the only thing that can possibly save a book like this is that the soul in question is so fascinating and so skillfully probed — although the flawless prose helps — that you are on the edge of your seat. Preposterous, you’re thinking. How can even the best written soul searching ever hope to rise to the level of real drama? I have absolutely no idea; I only know the book works. The last few pages of the final chapter, when Thomsen recreates the two scenes that spelled the end of his relationship with Ramon, are deeply moving.
Ah Moritz! We miss you. We miss the lovely books you will never write but most of all we Peace Corps veterans miss the chance to meet, or at least to correspond with, the only person, so far as we know, who was a WW II bomber pilot and a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Moritz Thomsen died in 1991. In his stead we have asked Mark Walker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and author of the memoir Different Latitudes, to do the honors in our author interview.
What is it about Thomsen’s writing you admire so much, enough to undertake the crusade you have embarked upon?
I have to agree with fellow author and personal friend of Moritz, Tom Miller (The Panama Hat Trail), when he said of Thomsen’s writing style, “[H]e pledged allegiance to nothing except his station as an expatriate. And as an expat, he was free to judge us all, an undertaking he finessed with acute observations, self-deprecation, and a flavorful frame of reference that ranged from a Tchaikovsky symphony to a Sealy Posturpedic mattress.” And from fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and author Paul Theroux: “Writing for him is a natural and instinctive act, like breathing.”
Why do you think Living Poor has become such a classic? There have been lots of memoirs, including your own well-received Different Latitudes.
Moritz was able to articulate like few others, the essence of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, as with this passage from the preface of Living Poor.
For those of us without fifty thousand dollars or so to invest in a pack trip through the Himalayan passes, the Peace Corps is perhaps the last great adventure available to Americans over eighteen years of age. The physical world has been mapped; but in the last analysis, the Peace Corps is an intellectual exploration, the chance (if you are patient enough) to enter in some degree into the hearts and minds and feelings of alien people with exotic cultures . . ..
Do you have a favorite among his published works? Why?
As a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who continued his overseas experience promoting local community development activities, The Farm on the River of Emeralds always resonated with me. But like many Thomsen enthusiasts, I’d wondered where his last, illusive manuscript was and how it might be published, bringing the number of travelogue classics to five. So, when Bad News from a Black Coast appeared on Amazon, published, I jumped with joy—at last, 28 years after his death. And it was worth the wait. Although those who have read Thomsen’s previous books will recognize more details and insights into characters and circumstances, this book is a standalone publication and includes several spectacular stories.
What can people do to support your Moritz Thomsen mission?
Please let me know about any letters and materials you know about Thomsen. He wrote thousands of letters to friends and writers around the world. You can let me know at Mark@MillionMileWalker.com. But first and foremost, share his work and those who have written about him with your friends so as to broaden the audience and appreciation of this iconic writer. Go to my website, www.MillionMileWalker.com under “Library” for reviews of all five of his books. Finally, I’m presently looking for a publisher for The Moritz Thomsen Reader: His Books, His Life and His Legacy Told by the Writers Who Knew Him Best, which will include essays about Moritz from well-known writers like Paul Theroux, Tom Miller and SIETAR’s own Craig Storti.
From your own life, what is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?
Undoubtedly, that would be the different worldviews and expectations with the love of my life, Ligia who is Guatemalan. I illustrate some of these differing expectations with my “She’d Reconsider List,” which are the items I might have shared with her to consider before agreeing to spend her life together with me:
He will constantly embarrass you in social settings with his horrendous grammar and constant use of foul language picked up in various slums and rural settings.
He’ll take you home to meet his family in the middle of winter, when it snows constantly, and the temperature rarely exceeds the freezing point.
Every three years, he’ll ask you to pack up the children and all your earthly belongings and move to a different country, where you’ll not know a soul.
His idea of success is helping the maximum number of extremely poor people he has never met before.
If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned about crossing cultures to the readers of this newsletter, what would you say?
I’m a firm proponent of Mark Twain’s quip, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”