The saddest gringo

A wanderer recalls an unforgettable encounter with the masterful author of "The Saddest Pleasure" in Equador.

Published July 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I remember him looking down from the window of his flat in Guayaquil, like some old, pathetic Rapunzel with no hair to let down. He was 75 then and stubbornly holding on, his lungs ravaged by a lifetime of smoking, his body broken down by an old age spent toiling on a farm in the jungle. In the manner of old men, his nose and ears had outgrown him; hair had fallen out of his scalp in great patches, casualty to jungle rot; his eyes watered incessantly and he mopped at them, while he read, with a sponge. He didn't just look old -- he looked ancient, ruined.

I was in the street, having attracted some attention, an obvious foreigner hollering up through cupped hands, "Thomsen! Hey, Thomsen!" This was the way you got ahold of him. He didn't have a phone or a doorbell, and anyway, with his lungs, those stairs may as well have been Mount Everest. After a long while he appeared in the big, open window, bare chest heaving with the effort. Looking like grim death, he narrowed his eyes on me and bellowed in mock outrage: "It's midnight!"

It was, in fact, not quite 8.

That night represented the end, I suppose, of the first stage of my travels through Ecuador. I was set to cross the river the next morning to catch the steam train that would carry me back up into the Andes. But for weeks I had crashed down the coastline, tracing a jagged line along the map, like a pachinko ball pulled south by gravity. It was adventurous traveling, much of it through territory without roads, and for a few days I alternated between speeding along beaches in the backs of pickups at low tide and motoring through mangroves in launches loaded with contraband.

I traveled through Thomsen country, first past Rioverde and then Esmeraldas, the primary settings of his first two books, "Living Poor" and "The Farm on the River of Emeralds." Not the kinds of places that invite a person to linger -- much less make a home -- there was a menace behind the scenery that had its roots in abject poverty. In Esmeraldas, children played around the market in mud puddles rotten with whatever offal washed through the streets. The atmosphere was humid and pestilential, thick with mosquitoes and the stench of fish. The pariah dogs were the most wretched I have ever seen. I'd heard of another traveler having her pack slashed open in the middle of the street there. As she struggled to hold on to her belongings, the attacker raised the machete once more as if to take her arm off. She screamed. He ran.

Not far from all this -- just across the Esmeraldas River -- was the location of Thomsen's last farm. A friend and fellow writer visited him there years before and recalled a tree outside his window festooned with spent typewriter ribbons jettisoned by the old man as he wrote. Moritz stayed on there, farming and writing, until his Ecuadorian partner, Ramsn, finally kicked him off the land, determined not to watch him die.

For Moritz, it was a bitter exile, and he seethed over it like a jilted lover. Writing in his book "The Saddest Pleasure," he scarcely concealed his acrimony: "Ramsn, my best friend, my partner, that jungle-wise black who was supposed to support me through the crises of my 60s and at the end see me decently buried, had lost his nerve. He had driven me off the farm. The details were so outrageous that now, almost a year later, I still cannot bear to think about it."

Many years later, in Guayaquil, he was still raging. He showed me a review of "The Saddest Pleasure" from the New York Times. The reviewer, Tim Cahill, had remarked on the self-pitying tone of the book and the criticism struck a nerve in Thomsen. "I wasn't feeling sorry for myself," he said, hissing through his few remaining teeth. "I was pissed. I'd been kicked off my own land, cheated out of a death on the farm. I was pissed off, and I wanted the reader to know it. Damn it, I'm not prepared to call that self-pity."

His flat was a mess of stacked papers and manuscripts. The walls were unadorned except for bookshelves, and the books they held were damp, mildewed around the edges and crawling with bugs. The only expensive object amid the squalor was the new stereo. Music was like religion to Thomsen, and he sat me down between the speakers and played Bartsk at full volume. It was beautiful, but I confessed I didn't know much about classical music. "Then you don't know much about music," he said.

His days were spent reading, editing his manuscripts and scrawling notes on the things he saw from his window. He was planning a book based on these observations. When I invited him to get some dinner, he declined. "I don't expect any excitement from food anymore," he said. "I'm just trying to stay alive, trying to finish my books." It was a profoundly sad statement; not self-pitying, but sad.

Still, Cahill had been right: If the two great pitfalls of autobiography are self-aggrandizement on the one hand and self-pity on the other, it's true that Moritz too often fell headlong for the latter. Nevertheless, his books were grand and valuable and important for the simple reasons that he wrote well about important things and chose to live a life stripped down to its essence. He wrote about himself with such honesty, in the end, that just when you thought he had confessed everything, he would open a new vein and bleed some more.

When I suggested, as others had before me, that it was this unflinching honesty that set his work apart, he looked at me as if I were the dumbest, most pathetic and unsalvageable son of a bitch he'd ever laid eyes on. "No," he said. "No, you miss the point. I've been living a life of lies, a life of illusions. That's what I'm trying to say in my books."

Of course, he wasn't always this relentless in his self-loathing, and in the two afternoons I spent talking with him, we slowly developed a rapport. Our discussion gravitated toward books (he was fond of Robert Stone, in awe of V.S. Naipaul) and politics. I told him about the strike I'd witnessed in the mountains, the Otovalan women and I huddling together amid the broken glass as protesters threw rocks at our bus. "Maybe we'll finally get our revolution," he said, smiling. By "we" he meant Ecuadorians, of course, and as for the revolution, well, he'd apparently been wishing that for years. In "The Old Patagonian Express" he had said very nearly the same thing to Paul Theroux.

Preparing to leave the second afternoon, he stopped me. "Don't you want some advice?" he asked. I supposed I did and took a seat. "Two things," he said. "First, write every day. Every day, without fail. And secondly, find a mentor, some old man to idolize and then tear down. Old men," he said, "are easily seduced."

I came back that night to return a book I'd borrowed and to say good-bye for the last time. Though he feigned annoyance at being awoken, he was clearly happy for the company and immediately picked up some thread from our previous conversation. It must have been a lonely life for him, with nothing but his books and his bitter memories, living out the end of his life in a city he hated, no refuge except, perhaps, in music.

Before leaving I asked him to inscribe my tattered copy of "The Farm on the River of Emeralds." He thought for a few moments before putting something down, then shut the book and handed it to me. "Don't read it," he said, capping his pen. "It's a stupid goddamn thing I wrote. I'll have the publisher send you another one." I laughed and shook my head, and he laughed at himself a little too. On the way out he pressed $20 on me like a magnanimous grandfather. "Traveling money," he said. "You may need it sometime; take it."

Moritz Thomsen died the following August of cholera. In "The Saddest Pleasure" he wrote of a preoccupation "to make sense of death ... to die at a good time, logically, putting finally some sense of order to a life that has been as ridiculous, as chaotically meaningless as anyone else's." It's a telling passage.

Born to considerable wealth in Hollywood, Thomsen died poor in the tropics: the American Dream in reverse. It was one of his great themes, of course, this lifelong struggle to break from his class, and looking back on it now, I think the author of "Living Poor" must have taken some small satisfaction in succumbing to what is generally considered a poor man's disease. A simple treatment of antibiotics and rehydration could have saved him, but what would have been the point? In cholera he found a way to wrap up his last book, to place the period at the end of his final sentence.

At least, that's what I like to think.

Back down in the street that night I locked his door, then tied the key to a string that he pulled up from the window. "Adios, Mr. Joseph," he yelled as he waved good-bye.

"Ciao, Moritz," I called up, a little sadly. "Take care, eh?"

The next night, after a long ride on the train to Alausm, after a shower to wash the coal dust out of my hair -- already a world away from the heat and bustle of Guayaquil -- I pulled a sweater on and fished Thomsen's book out of my pack to read the inscription: "To Patrick Joseph," he'd written in a crabbed and furious hand. "Hope you have better luck in the conquest of that thing we both want to conquer." Signed, Moritz Thomsen: June 20, 1990, Guayaquil.

God, what a long time ago. Such a long time. Ciao, Moritz, ciao.

By Pat Joseph

Pat Joseph is currently a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He last wrote for Salon about expatriate author Moritz Thomsen.

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