After being thrown off his small farm on the Rioverde located in northern Ecuador after years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as a local farmer by his local partner Ramon, the 63-year-old author, embarks on a desperate journey on a second river—this one is in Brazil. The trek proves to be a time of reckoning, assessing and reflecting on his life, which he perceived was coming to an end.
This book would be the third of the author’s four literary masterpieces. The author had chosen this title from a line from Paul Theroux’s “Picture Palace,” on a comment by a French traveler, but in an interview by John Coyne of the Peace Corps Worldwide the author went on to say, “Well, we have illusions about the new places that we visit; they are almost always false to the reality. And the places we know change so rapidly that to go back is many times quite wrenching. Maybe it is sad to travel and learn that life’s a bitch in Nairobi and Manaus and Tokyo and Sydney…”
Acclaimed travel author Paul Theroux considered Moritz Thomsen a friend and wrote introductions to several of his books. In this introduction, he summed up why this book is so special, “A travel book may be many things, and Moritz Thomsen’s, The Saddest Pleasure, seems to be most of them—not just a report of a journey, but a memoir, an autobiography, a confession, a foray into South American topography and history, a travel narrative, with observations of books, music, and life I general; in short, what the best travel books are, a summing up.”
I appreciate Moritz’s description of his book, revealed once again in the John Coyne interview, “A novel? On the inside cover of the last book about going to Brazil I told my editor I wanted to say, after the title: travel book as memoir, memoir as novel, novel as polemic.” Moritz said the editor forgot, but on the title page of this book are those very words.
As with all his books, Moritz shares many dark, difficult experiences, “Unlike Paul Theroux, despair does not make me hungry”, he states. “On the contrary, as the days pass, deciding to go out and eat becomes more and more complicated. The truth is that I am not especially seduced by Brazilian cooking, and my Portuguese is so crude that apparently everything I say sounds as though I were ordering potato salad…” I’m always amazed at Moritz’s ability to be transparent, especially in his most vulnerable moments.
Throughout his journey, Moritz is plagued by health issues caused by malaria and his ongoing battle with emphysema. “Once again I fall asleep, but I am beginning to feel like hell. Beginning to sweat, I float away from time to time in a mild delirium; it is as though I am taking a trip in two dimensions, in two directions at the same time, and I have the interesting presentiment that I am going backwards in time to observe my own death.” Throughout the journey, the author drops in and out of semi-consciousness from which he describes what he’s seeing out the bus window until entering a dream world of memories and regrets which he presents so starkly.
The author’s journey is a catharsis in which he’s able to describe in the most vivid, powerful ways. Of his father, he says, “For twenty years I had kissed that man’s ass for his money. He had a lot of it, including some of mine, if the rumors were true, and since the war, lacking the character to make a break with him, to make an independent gesture that would free me from his shadow…”. When his father learned he had joined the Peace Corps he disowned him as a “communist radical”. In one letter Moritz reports that his father offered to buy him, “a fucking one-way ticket to Russia. You make me sick. Your Loving Father.”
In all four books, Moritz describes and analyzes his partner from the Rioverde, Ramon, who initiated the journey with the revelation, “You are not of this place,” which shocks Moritz. “When he had said it I had been filled with a terror that so threatened to topple the foundations of my life that I had almost immediately pushed his words out of my mind. If I didn’t belong here, wherever “here” was, where did I belong?” As the journey continues, the author realizes that his only family is Ramon’s wife, Esther, and their two children.
Despite all the sad memories and images, the author manages to insert some humor with such Latin American traditions as, “A well-organized despedida shares certain characteristics with an Irish wake; leaving is a little death - the pain of which can only be dulled by drunkenness. Mourning, friends and family gather for an all-night bash. Increasingly maudlin and portentous, they wish you a safe trip in hopeless voices and enthusiastically drink from the bottles you have provided…”
Many of his most interesting memories emerge during a long bus ride along the coast, which reminded me of one I made after my Peace Corps stint from Sao Paulo to Salvador Bahia, “On Tuesday morning after the long weekend, still coughing, still a little disoriented, I walk up Rio Branco to a tourist office and buy a ticket for Bahia. Twenty-eight dollars for a thirty-hour bus ride, almost a thousand miles along the Brazilian coast. The way I’m feeling, if that doesn’t kill me, nothing will.” This would prove to be an arduous trip filled with fascinating stories and delusions.
Like many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, my introduction to Moritz was his first book “Living Poor,” which would focus on his Peace Corps experience and by so doing helped me better understand my own time in Guatemala, yet he reflects on its true meaning here as well.” I had been doing my little Peace Corps act—bringing in pigs and chickens, new kinds of seed corn, a little tractor, trying to start a co-op, and the presence of these exuberant Texans was extremely threatening. To me. Rioverde was my town; I wanted to change it my way. Now there was too much easy money coming in, too many beer drinking parties in the new saloons that were opening up. Pancho was forgetting to give water to his pig; the town was going crazy on gringo dreams…”
Although Moritz’s journey covers thousands of miles between two countries and introduces the reader to many unique cultural and culinary nuances, it’s his inner journey which makes this book so special and confirms Theroux’s observation that a great travel book is a “summing up.” This also confirms my belief and that of a growing number of authors, that he’s one of the best travel writers of the 20th Century.