by Tom Miller
A poor man’s writer.
He came to my Quito residence for dinner that equatorial night in 1982 wearing blue jeans and a recently washed button-down work shirt. I had delayed meeting the amiable white-haired Moritz Thomsen until I’d finished reading Living Poor(1969) and The Farm on the River of Emeralds (1978), two books that had established his reputation. By that time, he had achieved a low-key expatriate celebrity for his writing, for his impoverished life in a miserable fishing village on South America’s Pacific coast and for his cameo role in Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. He became a stop on the literary gringo trail, lending support to aspiring writers — especially those who, like him, had served in the Peace Corps — and he was eager to learn the latest about the New York literary scene from published authors. I took to Thomsen, then 67 years old, immediately.
Moritz Thomsen (1915-1991) came from an extremely wealthy Seattle family and considered his father an “outrageous catastrophe” on a par with World War II. In the mid-1960s, toiling as a somewhat eccentric central California pig farmer, Thomsen enlisted in the Peace Corps and ended up in Rioverde, Ecuador, a village in a region whose meager economy was based on the day’s catch from the Pacific Ocean or crops hacked out from the adjoining jungle. He described his life in occasional pieces for the San Francisco Chronicle and eventually wrote a book about Rioverde and the Peace Corps. Most of his local Peace Corps work — his efforts to establish co-op stores, find a more practical way to raise chickens and pigs, set up community organizations and the like — floundered, but one family, the Prados, responded avidly to his precepts. After he left the Peace Corps, Thomsen and the Prados bought a nearby farm and set about living there.
His first two books set out elegantly phrased but brutal truths about life among the poor. Drawing on Proust, Stravinsky and Hemingway, Thomsen got inside the skins of his rawboned neighbors and found them burdened with a combination of passion and ignorance.
He was a man of almost insufferable integrity and undeniable charm. He deflected efforts to have his works translated into Spanish because, as he once confided, he did not want those he lived among to see what he wrote about them.
The Ecuadorian intellectual class didn’t know what to make of this foreigner who championed people they didn’t particularly want to acknowledge, whose published works about their country were well received in the First World and who didn’t thrive on the polite dinner circuit in Quito or Guayaquil. They were not ready for revelations or confessions. Previous foreigners who had written about Ecuador — Charles Darwin, Ben Hecht, Ludwig Bemelmans, Henri Michaux — never dug as deep as Thomsen nor truly unpacked and stayed, as he did for the rest of his life. Ecuador and its literary salons pretty much ignored one of the great American ex-pat authors of the 20th century.
Through the years, Ecuador has heralded its own writers, whose international notoriety often reflected global literary trends. Perhaps its best known 20th-century author was Jorge Icaza, whose Huasipungo (1934) describes life among indentured laborers of the Andean highlands. At mid-century and beyond, Nelson Estupinan Bass, from the same region where Thomsen lived, represented Ecuador in Pan-African literature with his plays and poetry. Jorge Enrique Adoum, a poet and translator who was once private secretary to Pablo Neruda, is considered Ecuador’s representative among the boom generation writers. When women’s literature began to emerge in Ecuador in the 1970s and ’80s, novelist Alicia Yanez Cossio, now almost 80, was a leading voice. Most recently, Leonardo Valencia, a novelist from Guayaquil now living in Spain, and Gabriela Aleman, a Quito author, represented their homeland as part of the 2007 Hay Festival’s much-ballyhooed gathering of “39 Latin American writers age 39 or under,” held in Bogota. Aleman’s recently published sixth book, the half-comic, half-heartbreaking Poso Wells, opens near Guayaquil with a politician’s sudden death by electrocution when he touches a microphone after having wet his pants.
It is Aleman’s generation of young Ecuadorian writers that has reappraised Moritz Thomsen and found his works worthy of rediscovery and celebration. They recently staged the First International Conference on Moritz Thomsen in Quito. The salient questions were these: Was Thomsen an ex-pat or a true Ecuadorian? Should his work be considered travel literature? What of his pre-Ecuador journalism in small-town California newspapers? And last, but not least, were we all engaging in hagiography?
At its peak, the conference filled large tables in Quito restaurants with foreigners and locals energized by Thomsen memories, analysis and pending posthumous works. (A hitherto-unpublished manuscript, Bad News From a Black Coast, is said to be forthcoming, and his first two books are finally being translated into Spanish in Ecuador.) The city of Quito posthumously made him an honorary citizen, with a street eventually to be named in his memory. It was a vibrant gathering, full of Pan-American literary chatter and long-lost friends. Some of us visited Libri Mundi, the well-stocked international bookstore Thomsen helped found, which has spawned branches throughout the country.
Not coincidentally, no one from Guayaquil, the far larger, industrial metropolis on the Pacific side of the country, participated. The rivalry between the Andes and the coast, which plays out in politics, sports, business and entertainment, extends to literary attitudes, too. Icaza’s international classic Huasipungo, for example, is not “the kind of literature I respect from Ecuadorian writers,” a Guayaquil editor sniffed. “Too much politics and social awareness, but very little artistic sensibility.”
Regardless of where literary opinions come from in this small but intense country, Ecuador doesn’t have many real readers. A thousand copies is a common print run for a trade book. Although Ecuador claims a 90-percent literacy rate among its nearly 14 million inhabitants, many have only functional reading skills. Depending on whether you’re in the jungle, the highlands or on the coast, the written word as art may not have much value. Further, many of the country’s indigenous languages have an extensive oral tradition but a narrow written one.
When I lived in Ecuador in the early 1980s researching a book, I saw the chain-smoking Thomsen with some frequency and formed a deep friendship that continued in extensive correspondence. When I saw him last, he was living near the Esmeraldas River, his emphysema worsening, in what was, essentially, a tree house with a typewriter, books, a phonograph and classical records. We sensed it would be our last face-to-face visit, though neither of us said so. A few years later, he moved to Guayaquil for its sea-level altitude, choosing to live out his life alone, writing determinedly in a small apartment where, in the summer of 1991, he died of cholera, the poor man’s disease.
Tom Miller has been writing about Latin America and the American Southwest for more than three decades, bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Miller’s highly acclaimed adventure books include The Panama Hat Trail about South America, On the Border, an account of his travels along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, Trading With the Enemy, which takes readers on his journeys through Cuba, and, about the American Southwest, Revenge of the Saguaro. Additionally, he has edited three compilations: How I Learned English; Travelers’ Tales Cuba; and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader.
Miller, a veteran of the underground press of the 1960s, has appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, LIFE, The New York Times, Natural History, and many other publications. His collection of some eighty versions of “La Bamba” led to his Rhino Records release, “The Best of La Bamba.” His book On the Border has been optioned by Productvision for a theatrical film.
In recognition of his work the University of Arizona Library has acquired Miller’s archives. He has been affiliated with that school’s Latin American Area Center since 1990, and makes his home in Tucson with his wife Regla Albarrán. Tom Miller won the Travel Memoir Bronze for “Notes on an Andean Pilgrim” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.