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Volume ∞ Issue ∞

"Bad News from a Black Coast"

Sun, Dec 24th, 2000
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Monday, December 25, 2000

There are those who consider the little-known Moritz Thomsen one of the best American writers of the century. Washington Post Book World, 1996.

The very last time I visited Moritz Thomsen he was sitting in his grungy little house on the steamy banks of the Rio Esmeraldas, a half mile from where it emptied into the Pacific Ocean, reading aloud from a book that he was writing called Bad News from a Black Coast.

I already knew from his two earlier books that Moritzs style was one of caustic honesty and brutal self-introspection, but this sounded like his most potent stuff yet. Go, Moritz, I thought, this is what literature is all about! The twenty-some years he had spent, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as a tropical dirt farmer, futilely trying to hack a living out of the jungle on the northwestern coast of Ecuador, had left him with few illusions.

"I always thought the world would make a bit of sense to me by the time I reached 70," he once told me, "but the worlds more screwed up and beyond my comprehension than it ever was."

I told him I hoped that this new book would soon be published. It was a book that needed to be published.

"Hah!" he snorted. "Theres not a chance of that. My agent cant even read!"

It was a typical Moritz statement: ironic, hopeless and downright hilarious. It was a stretch to imagine that this worn-out old man - this hermit in every sense of the word - who was crippled and likely dying from a host of jungle infections and fevers, not to mention his emphysema, even had an agent. But he did, and a well-known and respected New York agent, at that.

Moritz had gone broke as a Northern California pig farmer back in the early 1960s and at the age of 48 joined the Peace Corps, for the noble and idealistic reason that he had run out of options and didnt know what the hell else to do with his life. The Peace Corps, in spite of its lofty and idealistic notions, has long been a means of escape for Americas malcontents, and Moritz was not the first nor the last to take advantage of its prepackaged two year tour to the fringes of the third world.

Moritz had been born into a family of great wealth and comfort, but had long been estranged from his cold and domineering father, whom he seemed to hate with a gleeful vengeance. The Peace Corps proved to be the cathartic experience that he needed and once his term was up, there was no way he was going to go back to the USA, the land of his misfortune and misery. No, Moritz was going to stay right where he was, among the poor black people on the black coast of Ecuador. A true idealist, Moritz was going to try to become one of them.

That afternoon, reading from his manuscript, Moritz described his first impressions of the coastal town of Rio Verde where the Peace Corps had sent him: It was a world of suffering and early death, of open sores and hunger, of drunken men, the dull, angry faces of women, the vacant faces of children losing their intelligence but too wise to weep, of rags and rages and foolish fights, the explosive violence of irrational men who have no power over their lives; of malice, envy, jealousy, brothers stealing from brothers, in short a society under such unbearable pressures that it had begun to disintegrate, and, as I was to learn later, was kept from some awful and final dissolution by the courage and nobility of the women.

* * *

In the mid-1980s, through an unusual set of circumstances, I, too, ended up in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer. The site I was sent to could hardly be called a village, but rather a random collection of raggedy bamboo houses grouped together. And this place was located just a few dusty kilometers from Rio Verde, the village that Moritz had put on the map, with his classic book Living Poor.

Moritz thomsen published three books in his lifetime. Living Poor (1969); The Farm on the River of Emeralds (1978) and The Saddest Pleasure (1990). A posthumous book, My Two Wars was published in 1996. Paul Theroux wrote of Thomsen: he is candid, he withholds nothing . . . writing for him is a natural and instinctive act, like breathing.

Richard Lipez, writing in the Washington Post called Living Poor, "a grandly humane chronicle" that is "tough, funny and brilliantly cranky."

In the book, Moritz showed that he certainly had no Midas touch as far as developmental work went. Every project he initiated, from chicken raising to a co-operative farming venture with the local thieves, farmers and drunks ended up an unmitigated disaster. That he extended his Peace Corps term and stayed in Rio Verde for four years is as much a testament to his stubbornness as to his repulsion at the idea of returning to the USA.

The greatest adventures in life are the joys of friendship and the dramas of human relationships and Moritzs fate was to become entangled with a young black man from Rio Verde named Ramon Prado. "Ramon found life to be enchanting, full of joys and joyous mysteries," Moritz would write. "Life was a dance, a celebration, an exhilaration of the senses."

Ramon became the son that he never had and after his second Peace Corps term was up, Moritz bought a few hundred acres of partially cleared jungle and the two men began their hapless attempt at turning the resistant land into a viable farm. The experience resulted in a book called The Farm on the River of Emeralds, which one reviewer called, "the most astute, unsentimental and loving examination of cultures in collision that youll find."

* * *

By the time I got to know Moritz, his partnership with Ramon had long since ruptured and from all appearances, Moritz was a lonely old man living out his final years in the most spartan and primitive of surroundings, though it didnt seem to bother him much. He was still writing about his life, the only subject he ever really wrote about; and was in the process of working on three different books: one, about a long journey through Brazil he had taken a few years earlier; another, about his experiences flying bombing missions in a B-17 over Germany during World War II, which he juxtaposed with the stormy relationship with his father; and then there was the Bad News manuscript, which was the continuing saga of his years on the Esmeraldan coast.

Once when I arrived for a visit, there was a local kid, around sixteen, standing inside Moritzs small house, languidly staring out the open-air window at the lemon trees in the yard. There was something sullen about him and a little bit sinister.

"Whos he?" I asked.

"I dont know," Moritz growled with characteristic humor, "but Ive got a feeling hes going to kill me one of these days."

* * *

In 1990, I was back in Minnesota when I received a letter from Moritz, who by then had moved to Ecuadors largest city, Guayaquil, a bustling and festering fever-port rumored to have the worst and most dangerous slums in all of South America.

"I left Esmeraldas in a rage," Moritz wrote, "after being robbed while I slept of practically everything I owned." Moritz fled to Quito, Ecuadors capital, high in the Andes, but had trouble breathing there, due to his emphysema, and then in desperation and what he called "a fate as bad as death" he settled down in Guayaquil.

His Brazil book, called The Saddest Pleasure, had just been published by Graywolf Press in St. Paul, and was receiving rave reviews. Paul Theroux, another former Peace Corps volunteer, and longtime penpal of Moritzs, wrote the books introduction. "To my mind, this farmer is a writer to his fingertips," Theroux said of Moritz. "Writing for him is a natural and instinctive act, like breathi

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