Some years ago, I rode a bus north from Rio to Bahia, 1000 long miles and 30 longer hours. Blue mountains, dusty air, and the sertão, that region menaced by poverty and afflicted by droughts that last years. I was reading Moritz Thomsen’s account of the same journey, made in 1978 and published in The Saddest Pleasure. I saw Brazil through Thomsen’s eyes, as well as my own – like wearing two pairs of spectacles. To use Orwell’s words when he first came across Henry Miller, ‘He knows all about me . . . He wrote this specially for me.’
The book is part travel writing, part memoir, and part polemic for the poor, though crucially, the parts are porous. I found the volume a perfect hybrid, and that genre, or non-genre, has attracted and influenced me ever since. Thomsen combines insight, mood, sensibility and appreciation with vivid topographical descriptions. No one has ever conjured the sweet night air of the tropics like him.
He was 63 when he boarded his bus in Rio, and in many ways a broken man. He had flown combat missions in the second war, and then farmed in California, where he went painfully broke. A marriage failed. He had been ill. After serving four years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, he returned to that country and bought a banana farm near Esmeraldas with an Ecuadorian partner; he calls that decade ‘the last movement of the somewhat banal, hopelessly romantic symphony of my life (the sentence is characteristic of Thomsen’s elegiac melancholy). His motivation in part was to enable his partner, Ramón, ‘to reach his full potential’. But Ramón kicked him off the farm.
The first two chapters of The Saddest Pleasure unfurl in Rio. Thomsen walks miles, and speaks to few people. His prose is peopled by ‘little shoe-shine boys twisted with hunger’, with whores, and with syphilitic drunks. On the bus to Bahia, until 1763 the nation’s capital ,Thomsen gets a fever and the writing becomes feverish. In town at journey’s end he sees garbage-choked streets that plunge down hillsides, and meets the writer João Ubaldo. In this unsatisfactory encounter, much whiskey goes down.
On to Recife (‘this sailor’s hell invented by Hogarth or Gissing’), Natal and Forteleza, ‘streets deep in the shade of mangos’. But by then Thomsen is focused on his first, much longed-for glimpse of the Amazon. He marvels at ‘that watery, half drowned world that that held the secret, the mystery of man’s essential inconsequentiality.’
The book, published in 1989, is a threnody for Brazil, and for the lost hopes of life itself – Thomsen’s, mine, yours, everybody’s. The memoir component of The Saddest Pleasure circles mostly around Thomsen’s late father, a wealthy bigot whom the author despised. Yet Moritz needed the family money. Dad accused him of being a communist. Thomsen realises now, after the old man is gone, that his life has been nothing but rebellion. The Saddest Pleasure is a fine contribution to the literature of men writing about their fathers. (I would like to see an anthology on that topic.)
‘The whole Brazilian trip was a symbol of ‘rejection, humiliation and uselessness’, Thomsen writes. Yet there are dabs of humour. An unfriendly bank clerk becomes ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, and the author has fun with his fellow passengers on the riverboat trip that ends the book. They include three disagreeable French tourists, an English Baptist missionary, a constipated dog and a hulking Dutchmen with whom Thomsen discusses God at some length. This part of the book has lots of yeasty direct speech.
Thomsen set off in this boat, two thirds of the way though the book, with destination Manaus. ‘The slow, lazy, negligent beat of the diesel’, he writes at the outset, ‘is like the opening bars of some tremendously long Mahler symphony.’ Cruising down the Amazon, past jungle and farms, Thomsen threads flashbacks of his experiences in Ecuador into the riverine travel narrative. An interloper on the farm had hacked up a neighbour with a machete; Thomsen saved his life, reflecting that, held in his ‘woman’s arms,’ the victim looked like Michelangelo’s Pietà. He and Ramón had bought a second farm and branched into cattle, and Thomsen lived on it alone for two years, a shrivening of sorts.
Thomsen wrote two other books before The Saddest Pleasure, but says he had never thought of himself as a writer. He had set down his words, ‘in those predawn hours when the land lay still in darkness, or in days of heavy winter rains when the cattle huddled in the brush dumb with misery . . . I had always considered that all my passion was centred around farming.’
But what a writer he is. He taught me the value – no, the vital importance – of specificity. A smell of garlic through the window of a seedy hotel ‘so strong one can almost see it; ‘the taste of little swordfish with blue bones’; women standing in doorways silhouetted against candlelight. An emptied dude ranch ‘suddenly seemed as dead as some animal with its throat cut’, while fishing boats ‘cut long slow lines across the water.’ I saw all of these things in Brazil, and The Saddest Pleasure heightened my perceptions. I also glimpsed the contradiction that bothered Thomsen. Isn’t it hypocritical, he asked, to spend $16 on food in a French restaurant while extemporising on the agonising life of the poor?
His themes, alas, are as relevant as ever: economic destitution, corrupt policemen and politicians, racial tension, inequality, the ruination, by one means or another, of indigenous peoples. Thomsen often mentions loneliness, and his fears for his sanity. He is a modest, vulnerable man. He writes about writers, – mostly the usual suspects, Proust, Machado and so on, his top man being Conrad (‘when he is at his best no one comes near him’). The title of the book comes from friend Paul Theroux’ novel Picture Palace – ‘Travel is the saddest of the pleasures.’
There is a denouement, or redemption, of sorts, in the final chapter, which is called ‘The Joining of the Rivers’. For the first time, Thomsen can say out loud, ‘I am a writer’, and, also for the first time, he relives the traumatic last month on the farm. He feels changed.
‘I am living’, he said before the trip, ‘with the kind of emptiness that only death can fill.’ He died of cholera in Guayaquil in September 1991.